Numbers to Remember and Wins for IRV

We' ve been sifting through the results of the Nov. 2 elections and recently posted them at They tell important stories -- ones that in some cases have been overlooked or misinterpreted by many observers.

For example, as Republicans have been crowing about, George Bush had more votes than any candidate in US history. But so did John Kerry.

The 55% voter turnout was high by US standards, but low by the standards of most of the democratic world. It is worth bearing in mind that with a small swing of votes to Kerry in Ohio, he could have won the presidency while having fewer popular votes nationwide than Bush. And most states and voters watched the election from the 45th row, while a handful of battleground states received the spotlight. The system remains deeply flawed.

We believe the 2004 election was in fact a very status quo election, reflected by the near exact Electoral College mirror of 2004 to 2000, the almost perfect stasis in US House races and the fact that only four House and Senate incumbents lost outside of the victims of Tom Delay's Texas gerrymander.

In other words, we have not moved away from the Red vs Blue America electoral map; on the contrary, those demographics are more firmly cemented into place. The Republicans' Senate gains fit into this pattern, with all gains coming on ground that already was firmly Republican in 2000. Nationwide, Democratic Senate candidates won some three million more votes than Republicans, but due to the "representation subsidy" that gives each state two senators regardless of population, the low-population Red America, i.e. Republican, senators have the majority.

Indeed the Democrats gained seats in House races outside of Texas, had hardly any House incumbents even remotely threatened, and regained their majority in state legislative seats around the nation.

Most disturbing, the House of Representatives has reached an unprecedented level of non-competitiveness. More than 95% of seats were won by margins of more than 10% -- a record. The lack of congressional competition is partly due to redistricting, partly due to incumbent advantages, partly due to campaign finance inequities -- but primarily due to the fact of winner-take-all elections in single-seat districts.

Demographically, Democrats are more concentrated in urban areas, and even independent redistricting commissions will have difficulty creating more competition. Full representation voting methods are the one indispensable part of any reform package seeking to provide real choices and fair representation to all voters.

As to the election process in this country, many observers are suggesting that the election went smoothly. Although we applaud all the election officials and alert voters who tried to make our elections work, we would disagree that failing to register 50 million potential voters and making voters stand in lines as long as 11 hours are signs of a well-operating electoral process.

We have a patchwork of laws and practices that are an accident waiting to happen -- and an ongoing means to depress voter participation. Not only is there no uniformity of voting machines, but also too little uniformity of election procedures (like how to handle provisional or overseas ballots), or even civil service requirements for becoming an election administrator (like demonstrating a level of competence, knowledge of technology, and nonpartisanship).

Bottom line, we badly need what other democratic nations have, a National Elections Commission that sets uniform standards, helps to develop the best voting equipment and partners with the states and counties to run good, clean elections. The Elections Assistance Commission established recently by the Help America Vote Act could form the basis for such a national Elections commission, but it would have to be seriously beefed up and given a lot more funding.


Our Center is developing a series of recommendations for congressional action, starting with a right to vote in the Constitution and continuing through statutory changes such as universal voter registration, making Election Day a holiday to ensure both an adequate pool of pollworkers and increased access for voters, and uniform standards for voting equipment.

All such changes would flow naturally from direct election of the president instead of the increasingly bankrupt Electoral College. Congressman Jesse Jackson has proposed a direct election amendment (HR 109) with a companion legislative bill for instant runoff voting (IRV).

In a bright spot on the dismal electoral landscape, IRV supporters can take heart in three landslide wins during November's ballot. In Ferndale, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, 69% of voters amended the charter to provide for IRV election of the mayor and City Council pending the purchase of compatible equipment. The campaign was ably led by Ferndale IRV ( In Burlington, Vt., two-thirds of voters approved an advisory referendum led by the League of Women Voters on whether Burlington should use IRV to elect the mayor. A formal charter amendment is likely to advance in March. And a statewide bill for IRV will have new life in a legislature now controlled by Democrats.

Voters in 16 western Massachusetts towns approved by a 2-1 margin a non-binding motion in support of IRV, directing their state representative to vote in favor of requiring IRV for statewide elections. And final good news was San Francisco's first IRV election. Despite introducing the system to voters in the midst of a presidential year, the city reported a smooth transition after a campaign that all acknowledged included many more efforts by candidates to use ranked ballots to build coalitions and reach out to more voters.

This was a difficult election, but with the 2006 mid-term elections presenting opportunities for change, exciting new Illinois Sen. Barack Obama re-integrating the US Senate and new reform successes to build on, we would encourage people to be ready to defend the policies they care about and join with us in working for a real democracy in America.

Rob Richie is executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy ( Steven Hill is the center's senior analyst and author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics ( Email them at

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