An Election System for Whatcom County
by Stoney Bird
Stoney Bird is a retired corporate lawyer, who spent part of his time in that role soliciting salaried employees for contributions to the company’s PAC.
This is the ninth in a continuing series of articles that began with the January, 2014 issue. The series is an attempt to address some of the impediments to democracy in American society. Earlier articles covered the Lewis Powell memorandum, the Constitution, the electoral system, the money system, and the job system – all of which have contributed to our system of unrepresentative and plutocratic government. This is a follow-on to the articles in July and Oct/Nov issues.
[The legislature] should be in miniature, an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them. That it may be the interest of this Assembly to do strict justice at all times, it should be an equal representation, or in other words equal interest among the people should have equal interest in it.
– John Adams1
The Whatcom County Charter Review Commission is taking up its work and has the opportunity to suggest to the voters a system of elections for the County Council that would be truly representative.2
For the last ten years there has been a debate over whether we should have county-wide or district-level elections for the County Council. Either form of election results in the kind of unrepresentative government that, as we will see, winner-take-all elections always produce.3 The debate has really been about whether one group of voters will gain the upper hand over another group. It has not been about the interest of the voters in having a government in which their votes actually count and which represents all political perspectives in proportion to the number of people holding them.
There is a system of elections that will achieve these aims. It is called proportional representation. You can see its main features in the sidebar. From the time of John Stuart Mill and before, whole books have been written about it, not to speak of a good article in the Wikipedia.4 As the newly-elected County Charter Review Commission prepares to do its work, hopefully its members will take these virtues of a different electoral system into account. We need a County Council that actually represents the full range of perspectives in the County, and we need it after every election.
Our Unrepresentative Government
There's been much handwringing since the November elections about the low turnout especially among Democrats. No doubt the Democratic voters were disillusioned at what the "Democrats" they voted for had actually done, but my belief is that the low turnout reflects as much as anything a profound understanding among more and more voters that their votes simply don't count. In fact, at least since the 1980s, the wishes of ordinary people have had precisely no influence on the actions of Congress, as a new study by Princeton University political scientists shows.5
Many are outraged with one of the reasons for our votes not counting. It's all the money sloshing around both at election time and when the legislature is in session -- think corporate lobbyists. Since both sides of the two-party duopoly are controlled by corporate campaign contributions, where do ordinary citizens come in at all?
There's an even more fundamental reason our votes don't count -- the winner-take-all electoral system itself. The winner-take-all system was a great advance in 1789, when the Constitution was adopted. It meant that in principle "the people" had a say in who was going to govern the country. Back then "the people" who could participate in elections, not to speak of the adoption of the Constitution, were adult, male, free, white property-owners, about 6% of all those living in the 13 original states. Such a limited definition of "the people" might seem anomalous by today's standards, but when the alternative was hereditary monarchy, an electorate consisting of 6% of the population was a great improvement.
But did human wisdom and inventiveness stop evolving in 1789?
What the rest of this article will do is analyze the ways in which winner-take-all elections produce unrepresentative government, using the Washington State legislative elections from 2002 to 2014 as examples.
Winner-Take-All Elections: Inherently Unrepresentative6
In the winner-take-all system, one person gets into office as the representative of the district in each position. If you voted for someone else, you are unrepresented. In Washington's 42d Legislative District, which basically covers Whatcom County outside Bellingham, Republicans get between 55% and 60% of the vote. The result is that the 40% to 45% of the voters who want a Democrat to be elected are left out in the cold year in and year out. As we'll see that pattern repeats itself across the state (though sometimes it's the Democrats who are dominant and local Republicans who end up being unrepresented, for example, in the 40th District).
Let's look even closer. What about the 5% or 10% of Republicans in the 42d District who constitute the excess over the bare majority needed to elect someone? Their votes don't add a thing to the Republican victory. They didn't count towards getting someone elected any more than all the voters who voted for the Democratic candidate.
In other words, our electoral system ends up meaning that at least half the votes don't result in representation and are in that sense useless. This doesn't sound like a system of representative government to me.
Here's the basic point: drawing district lines predetermines winner-take-all election results. The lines set up a district that has a certain composition of voters, whatever that may be. In practice, it's not some apolitical technocratic principle that draws the district boundaries. What's worse is that it's the political powers that be. The result is called gerrymandering, named after one of its first practitioners in the new United States, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who had participated in the 1788 Constitutional Convention.
In two-thirds of the states the redrawing is done by the legislature,7 and is nakedly partisan. In Washington State (and in six other states), the redistricting is done by a bi-partisan commission appointed by the two party hierarchies.8 The result - in our fair state - is that the two parties divide up the spoils. You can see the results for the last two redistrictings in Table 1. The political appointees on the Commission drew the district lines so that a little short of half of the districts were (and are) safe Republican Districts and a roughly equal number are safe Democratic districts. As a sop to the idea that the voters do actually have a say, they leave a small number of districts where the outcome is in doubt, and could go either way.9
Let's look at the figures from the November election last year (see Table 2). In 44 of the 49 districts (90%) one party won all the contests (either two or three, depending on whether the district was electing a State Senator as well as State Representatives). The average winning percentage in those 44 districts was 71%. In other words, 90% of the districts had been set up so that there was a landslide in every race for the party the Redistricting Commission had awarded the district to. In only five of the districts did the two parties split the contests (Democrats getting one or more people into office, and the Republicans getting the rest).
There are other indications of how skewed the districts are. In 14 of the 2014 elections (11%), the imbalance was so extreme that, with the action of the top-two primary, the two candidates in the general election were from the same party. In another 18 of the elections (15%), the party with the predetermined minority – quite reasonably – didn't bother to field a candidate. That's a quarter of the contests where we didn't even get to choose between the two branches of the corporate duopoly.
If it was only one election where this had happened, perhaps we could write it off as an anomaly, but the same pattern has been repeated for a long time. See Table 1. Over the seven elections that I analyzed, and that took place from 2002 to 2014, four-fifths of the districts were ones in which one party or the other had average leads of at least 10%. I would lay good money that the same was true during the 1990s after the Redistricting Commission first started operating in 1991.
You might say, "What's so bad about that? People with similar views often live in the same area." To be sure they do, but on reflection you'll see that what determined these election results was the winner-take-all system and the lines drawn by the Redistricting Commission. The voters had to turn out in sufficient numbers to allow the political hierarchy – and the corporate media – to claim we had an election, but the voters were not the decision-makers.
Some may also say that – statewide – Democrats and Republicans are represented in proportion to their numbers. If that is true (and I have not checked), it would be a matter of happenstance, not because the electoral system inherently produced that result. It is worth noting that before 1776, the British Parliament said that the people residing in the 13 colonies were "virtually" represented, even if they couldn't elect anyone to Parliament.
Note, too, that in the current system, nearly all the members of the legislature are from gerrymandered safe districts and worry little about opposition, no matter what extreme positions they take. The winner-take-all system is an invitation to the polarization that is such a prominent feature in our current political life.
Proportional Representation: The Way to Go
Recognizing these defects in the winner-take-all system, two-thirds of the democracies in the world have adopted proportional representation for their legislative elections.10 Where proportional representation is the system of elections, nearly every vote counts towards the election of someone to office; the voters are not forced into the straight-jacket of the two-party, corporate-controlled duopoly; gerrymandering is pretty much impossible; voters can vote for a third party that represents their actual political views without fear of throwing the election; and the taxpayers are saved the expense of primaries. It's what we need in every election, and a good place to start would be the elections to the Whatcom County Council.
Proportional Representation in a Nutshell
If you want an electoral system where, unlike our current system of winner-take-all elections,
- Pretty much every vote counts toward the election of someone the voter voted for;
- The resulting elected body proportionately reflects the political composition of the electorate;
- Gerrymandering is much harder to accomplish;
- You can safely vote for the person you really favor without danger of throwing the election to the "bad guys";
- Third parties that many voters like are not effectively excluded;
- The taxpayers avoid the expense of primaries; and
- We get out of the grip of the corporate duopoly.
...then proportional representation (PR) is for you!
Here's how it would work if the seven-member Whatcom County Council were elected by PR,
- You would vote for as many candidates as you favored, and rank your choices;
- If your first choice didn't get in, your vote would count towards the election of your second choice (or third choice, or fourth choice, etc.);
- It would take a little less than 1/7 of the vote to get someone into office (the "yellow line"), so voters from all over the County who favored, let's say, no corporate contributions to County Council races, would have a chance of representation;
- Votes in excess of the yellow line and votes for candidates who mathematically couldn't win would be reallocated in accordance with the voters' rankings to the remaining candidates until the full complement were elected.
1. Adams, John, "Thoughts on Government", 1776, The Adams Papers Digital Edition, Massachusetts Historical Society.
2. Not so incidentally, the Commission itself was elected in a way that approaches proportional representation. Voters were allowed to vote for up to five candidates, and then the top five vote-getters in each Council district got into office. See the sidebar for a summary description of proportional representation.
3. See also my analysis of the 2013 County Council elections that appeared the article entitled Our System of Elections: Structurally Unrepresentative, in the July, 2014, issue of the Whatcom Watch, http://www.whatcomwatch.org/php/WW_open.php?id=1743.
4. See Douglas J. Amy, "Real Choices/New Voices: How Proportional Representation Elections Could Revitalize American Democracy", 2d ed., 2002 (available at the Bellingham Technical College library), and the Wikipedia article on proportional representation at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proportional_representation.
5. In a study covering twenty years in the 80s and 90s, political scientists Gilens and Page of Princeton University discovered that the public had precisely zero influence on the decisions of Congress unless the public happened to want the same things as the rich (for purposes of the study, those within the top 10% of incomes). Then they got what they wanted 80% of the time. As the authors point out, this is "democracy by coincidence." Gilens, Martin, and Benjamin Page, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, Perspectives on Politics / Volume 12 / Issue 03 / September 2014, pp 564-581.
6. I say "at least" half because if there are more than two candidates, then the percentage who end up casting useless votes will be even greater. For example, suppose there are three candidates and the vote is split 40%, 35%, 25%. The votes for the 35% and 25% candidates don't count at all for actual representation, and the 5% excess for the 40% candidate doesn't add anything either for that candidate. So, 65% of the vote is for nought. It's even worse if there are more than three candidates. In Washington State, the top-two primary system has been imposed from above, and so we are actually prevented from having more than two candidates in the general election. If your moral universe is the high school football game, this is a good thing. It means that there is a clear winner and a clear loser. I cheer for "my" team (because it embodies all moral values in the universe) and you cheer for "your" team (because - unaccountably - you think it has the indisputable claim to all moral value), and virtue triumphs over the bad guys. The winner-take-all system is about exclusion rather than about representative government.
7. Wikipedia, Redistricting, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Redistricting viewed December 26, 2014.
8. The Constitutional Amendment forming the Redistricting Commission was adopted in 1983, and the Commission convened for the first time in 1991, following the 1990 census. For a history of redistricting in Washington State, see the Secretary of State's website at http://www.sos.wa.gov/legacyproject/ShiftingBoundaries (viewed Jan 1, 2015).
9. You can get a taste of the political logrolling that goes into these decisions from Riley Sweeney's article in the December issue of the Whatcom Watch. What was on the minds of the Commissioners, according to Sweeney, was the interests of elected officials (in that case the mayor of Bellingham) rather than the interests of the voters. Riley Sweeney, Brutal Election Results: What the Heck Happened?, Whatcom Watch, December, 2014, http://www.whatcomwatch.org/php/WW_open.php?id=1787. Judging by its actions, the Commission could equally well be called the Incumbents' Protection Commission.
10. For more information about proportional representation, see the references in endnote 4.