Review of "Fixing
Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All
Politics," by Steven Hill, New York and London, Routledge Press, 2002.
Review by Phil Tajitsu
Nash, Asian Week columnist
Close your eyes and imagine a political system that creates affirmative
action for low-population states over those with high populations. Every
ten years the boundaries of the state political districts are re-drawn
behind closed doors by political insiders, favoring incumbents and punishing
outsiders. The resulting national legislature looks nothing like the
cross-section of Americans, with 86% of the Representatives being White, 87%
male, the old far better represented than the young, a plurality being
millionaires, and 60% employed in either law, real estate, insurance, or
Keeping your eyes closed, imagine that this political system is so stacked
in favor of incumbents that only about ten percent of the Representatives
face credible opposition in any two-year election cycle. That ten percent
of races that are competitive attract political pollsters, message managers,
and other campaign consultants who simulate just enough responsiveness to
voter concerns to get the votes of the "swing voters" who will give the
winning candidate 50% + 1 votes. This "winner-takes-all" voting scheme
results in the disenfranchisement of up to 49% of the residents of some
political districts, who become "political orphans" because they are
represented by someone with whom they have little in common politically.
Meanwhile, imagine that this "winner-takes-all" system leads to a
mud-slinging, lowest-common-denominator brand of campaigning where slogans
and posturing replace substantive discussions of important issues. The
interests of those entrenched in a party are ignored in the rush to appease
the elusive ""swing voter." Yet voters and candidates are discouraged from
venturing outside the two-party system for fear of being called "spoilers."
Open your eyes, and you will realize that the system described here is the
much-heralded American political system. According to Steven Hill, author
of the newly-released "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner
Take All Politics," the "Winner Take All" nature of our electoral system was
the best available in the 18th century, when the alternative was monarchy.
However, most of the world's democracies have adopted "proportional
representation" (PR) and other more democratic ways of voting that have
evolved since then, and we should too.
"Fixing Elections' is a fascinating, well-written page-turner that describes
how our political system evolved, why it is not working, and how we can fix
it. I read its 303 pages in a single sitting, and found it a rich source of
new ideas, plus a treasure-trove of resource notes that can lead the
interested reader to more materials on democratic voting practices.
Steven Hill has been a powerful and visionary writer and activist for reform
of our nation's voting practices for many years. San Francisco-based
readers know him as the architect and campaign manager of last year's
Proposition A, the plan to elect top city officials by instant runoff voting
(a more cost-efficient and democracy-inducing way to elect officials than
the old paper ballot runoff system). Along with Rob Richie and others at
the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org), Hill has been a
leader in the struggle to bring to this country the same proportional
representation and other voting reforms that are standard in the voting
practices of many American shareholder elections and the political campaigns
of most of the world's democracies.
Asian Pacific Americans have a lot to learn from "Fixing Elections," because
we as a community are disproportionately hurt by the unfair election
practices now in place. For example, while we are overrepresented in urban
states such as California and New York, political power in this country
favors those from small population states such as Wyoming. With less
residents that the District of Columbia (population 572,000, as of February
2002), for example, Wyoming (population 494,000) has the same number of
United States Senators (two) as the far more populous state of California
(population 4.2 million). With only 4,100 APAs in Wyoming, or 0.8% of the
population, our chance of becoming an elected official is small.
While APAs are starting to become members of our state and federal
legislatures, we still lag far behind the numbers we deserve in all states
except Hawaii (see http://www.aaa-fund.org/aspdata/statedata.asp for a
calculator that tells you how many APA legislators your state should have,
if representation was based on population).
When those back room deals are made to set district lines after the
decennial (every ten year) census, we are not usually included in those
deals. Why else was New York City's Chinatown, one of the largest APA
enclaves in the nation, lumped together for so many years with a
mostly-white, fairly conservative enclave across the water in Staten Island?
"Fixing Elections" is an especially good antidote for those who say that our
current economic woes can be fixed by throwing out a few bad apples and
continuing to rely on the veracity of our business and elected leaders. As
Hill so clearly points out, the economic and political systems are
interconnected, and both are broken. Go to pages 162 or 232 and see how
Hill (relying on the research of pathbreaking political scientists Lawrence
Jacobs and Robert Shapiro and their book "Politicians Don't Pander") debunks
the myth of our political leaders being responsive to their constituents.
Using focus groups and polls, many politicians today simulate responsiveness
through "crafted talk," which misleads the voters into thinking that their
concerns are being addressed. President Bush, for example, tells us that he
cares about punishing the corporate execs who cooked the books at Enron and
other corporations, but then does not give the Securities and Exchange
Commission the funds or leadership to do adequate investigations or
Ironically, while a great myth in this society is that we have the greatest
democracy in the world, Hill proves convincingly that we do not:
* On page 232, read about the growing distance between the views of the
electorate and the policies being enacted by our representatives (big donors
have a bigger impact than constituents, in many cases)
* On page 235, read how Winner Take All democracy does NOT lead to moderate,
centrist, stable, or majoritarian government
* on page 13, read how the growing racial divide in thisa country is being
exacerbated by the growth in one-party states (Dems control most positions
in Massachusetts and Maryland, for example, while Republicans control in
Idaho and Nebraska)
* on age 18, read about the growing contradictions being faced by Democrats
who must keep minorities happy while not losing white swing voters, and
Republicans who must reach out to minorities while not losing their white
The ultimate myth that is burst by Steven Hill is that most other countries
have electoral systems more advanced than ours. As the electoral fiasco of
2000 proved to many observers, ours is an unfair system that systematically
disenfranchises many people. Whether you are a Republican in San Francisco,
a Democrat in Idaho, or an APA almost anywhere, "Fixing Elections" is a
must-read on your road to real (not simulated) political empowerment.
For more on Steven Hill and Proportional Representation, see the web site of the Center for Voting and Democracy http://www.fairvote.org. For more about his book, see www.FixingElections.com.
Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics, by
Steven Hill, New York and London, Routledge Press, 2002.
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