For all the national outrage in recent years over the Columbine massacre and ongoing gun violence, that sentiment could not keep federal legislation outlawing semiautomatic weapons from expiring recently. As with so many other issues, majority support does not necessarily lead to action in a Congress that increasingly seems out of step with the American people. How can there be such a disconnect between popular opinion and public policy?
Many pundits and observers blame it on power wielded by the National Rifle Association and its campaign war chest. But the fact is that the NRA has power not so much because many Americans intensely support gun rights, or the deep pockets of its political action committee donations, but because of the fundamental structures of our antiquated winner-take-all elections that give awesome power to what is known as "swing voters."
It turns out that NRA voters are disproportionately swing voters -- among that 10% of voters who will change sides in a close election. Many are classic Reagan Democrats who fear infringement on gun ownership. These NRA voters form a potent single-issue voting bloc.
Moreover, NRA voters live disproportionately in battleground states and battleground congressional districts. Because George Bush and John Kerry both need to win these regions this year, they wield huge influence over who wins the presidency and controls the US House of Representatives. In the battleground states and congressional districts, a change in 5% of the vote can make all the difference. The NRA's influence has come from its capacity to move its supporters in these key swing districts and states -- with its message more than its money.
The task of the NRA then -- to target their resources to the 15 battleground states and 30 battleground House districts like squares on a checker board, and try to alarm just enough swing voters there -- is rendered much easier by the geographic-based political map of our winner-take-all system.
Note that some of its targeting is directed at precise constituencies. The NRA has been instrumental to the GOP strategy because of its ability to appeal to pro-gun labor union members and pry them away from the Democratic Party. The NRA claims that up to one-fifth of union members in battleground states belong to the NRA, which best explains why Al Gore began quickly backpedaling on his strong gun control position during the 2000 presidential campaign. Union leaders were not afraid of the NRA's money -- unions have plenty of their own -- but they were afraid of the pro-gun side's support among union members in key swing states and in key House districts.
In the aftermath of Election 2000, many Democrats now believe that Gore's earlier strong support for gun control cost him such heavily rural swing states as West Virginia, Missouri, Ohio, Arkansas and his home state Tennessee. Democrats have decided not to be snared in this trap again, which suggests why John Kerry has trumpeted his own prowess as a gun owner. As the Democratic Party retreats from this issue, there is no viable electoral alternative such as a third party to hoist the pro-"gun control" flag.
The NRA would not be nearly as effective if it weren't for our winner-take-all elections, which are fought district by district and state by state. The geographic checkerboard allows the NRA to divide and conquer the 15 battleground states and 30 battleground House districts. The reality is that the dynamics of winner-take-all elections allow gun control opponents -- just like anti-Castro diehards in Florida -- to form a potent single-issue voting bloc that far outweighs their minority status. Winner-take-all dynamics allow well-organized political minorities like the NRA to hold important policy demands hostage and have influence beyond its numbers, contributing toward distortions in national policy.
American media outlets often portray European-style parliamentary and proportional representation democracies as beholden to tiny political parties of electoral extremists who hold coalition governments hostage -- overlooking how the great majority of well-functioning democracies use such systems. But in fact, our winner-take-all elections allow "swing voter" extremists like the NRA, Florida Cubans, and others to push their radical agendas upon the mainstream. If we don't understand how our system works, we will miss the mark when we try to improve it.
Steven Hill is senior analyst for the Washington DC-based Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org), and author of FixingElections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics (www.FixingElections.com). Rob Richie is the Center's executive director. Contact the center at firstname.lastname@example.org.