NEAL PEIRCE COLUMN
For Release Sunday, September 15, 2002
© 2002 Washington Post Writers Group
Review of Fixing
Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All
Politics," by Steven Hill, New York and
London, Routledge Press, 2002.
TAMING ‘WINNER TAKE ALL’ -- A CURE FOR
By Neal R. Peirce
What’s wrong with politics in America?
What explains our abysmal voter turnouts -- down, according to one international
study, to 138th in the world, sandwiched between Botswana and Chad?
Why are vast segments of the country political wastelands for one party or the
other? Why are so many million voters “orphaned” in states where the
candidates they prefer are likely never to win?
And if the majority’s supposed to rule, how come such huge amounts of campaign
advertising get thrown at small contingents of swing voters -- the very people
who’re typically the least informed, or alternatively the most zealous on a
narrow issue, like Miami Cubans?
Political analyst Steven Hill offers up a single answer in his new book, Fixing
Elections (Routledge publishers). It’s the winner-take-all system of
elections -- letting the highest vote getter earn the office and the power, with
almost zero regard for minority votes or interests.
The Constitution’s Framers, Hill notes, were an inventive and innovative
bunch. For them, winner-take-all -- indeed any mildly democratic method --
was advanced for its time. But, Hill reminds us, the framers were dealing
with “a small electorate of perhaps 200,000 propertied white males that
excluded the poor, women, African slaves, and indentured servants from
A system sufficient in 1789 is dangerously outmoded, he suggests, in today’s
world of multiple ethnicities and races, sharply divergent belief systems,
global ties and free trading mass society.
We can and should invent more sensitive electoral systems, Hill asserts. He
points to Illinois’ interesting experience, from 1870 to 1980, with three-seat
state House districts. The system was chosen to pull a heavily divided
state together after the Civil War. Voters could cast all their three
votes for one candidate, or distribute them as they chose.
Result: any candidate who got over 25 percent was likely to win.
Overwhelmingly Democratic Chicago districts usually elected two Democrats and
one Republican, downstate districts two Republicans and one Democrat.
There were few “orphaned voters.” Legislative partisanship wasn't acute
because both parties represented the entire state. More mavericks, willing
to buck their party’s leadership, got elected. Bipartisan coalitions were
Today’s state legislative leaders, accustomed to using the cudgel of campaign
cash to dictate issues and members’ voting, would likely fight cumulative
voting. But last year in Illinois a bipartisan, blue-ribbon commissioned,
headed by former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar and Abner Mikva, a former federal
judge and former Democratic U.S. Representative, warmly endorsed return to the
former system. The three-member districts, noted Mikva, “helped us
synthesize some of our differences, made us realize we had a lot in common as a
Combining U.S. House districts in similar fashion, writes Hill, could reduce
partisanship, give people of all persuasions a motivation to vote, and give
America’s fast growing minorities -- especially Hispanics and Asians -- a much
better chance at winning office.
Winner-take-all could also be curbed in presidential elections, avoiding a
Florida-like 2000 debacle, by apportioning each state’s votes to reflect the
full popular vote. Or by going to direct national election of the
president, using an alternative “instant runoff” method that lets voters
rank candidates by their order of preference -- meaning there’s less chance
the candidacy of a splinter contender (like Ralph Nader in 2000) could draw
enough votes to flip the final outcome.
It’s desperately important, writes Hill, that we start experimenting freely
with election laws -- to encourage political participation across all regions
and groups, to reinvigorate our imperiled democracy. The Founding Fathers tinkered and experimented -- and would expect us to.
In science, business, other realms, we Americans have created one of the most
inventive societies on earth. Our federal system ought to be tailor-made for
But we’re so cocky. We view our political system, writes Hill, “as the
Copernican center, the jewel of democracy.” Yet in fact, other societies
recently adopting democratic institutions, from states of the former Soviet bloc
to South Africa, have declined to go for winner-take-all voting and rejected
archaic methods like our Electoral College. New Zealand recently junked
winner-take-all after 150 years.
Maybe change at the state and local level can come first. In essence, Hill
notes, single seat districts assure geographic representation based on where you
live, while proportional methods provide representation of how you think.
Couldn’t the two systems be complementary? Couldn’t a single state
elect at least one house of its legislature by three-member districts as
Illinois did, while letting winner-take-all live on in the other?
Or couldn’t communities follow San Francisco’s recent adoption of instant
runoffs? (Statewide instant runoffs for Alaska lost last month, but
supporters intend to keep pushing.)
The moral’s simple: the American republic never needed so desperately to
experiment. It’s time we got on with it.
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