June 13th, 2013,
At this very early point in the 2014 race for the U.S. House, small Republican gains — as in, less than five seats — look likelier than a similarly small gain for Democrats. That’s because the Republican targets just look a little better than the Democratic ones.
While it would be foolish to rule out any outcome, there is no indication at this point that the Republican House majority is in jeopardy.
That’s obvious from our recent tweak of our Crystal Ball U.S. House ratings. Chart 1 shows the changes we’ve made since our last update (April 4), and Chart 2 shows the ratings overall. The House, which after last week’s special election of Rep. Jason Smith (R, MO-8) is now at full strength, has 234 Republicans and 201 Democrats. That means Democrats need to pick up 17 seats to grab the majority.
Chart 1: Crystal Ball U.S. House ratings changes
Chart 2: 2014 Crystal Ball U.S. House ratings
Notes: Members in italics hold seats that the other party’s presidential candidate won in 2012. *Signifies possible retirements or candidacies for other offices; **shows members vulnerable to primary challenge. Ratings for all 435 seats are available here.
Here are three, basic reasons why the Republicans remain heavy favorites in the House:
1. Democrats don’t have enough credible targets. There are only 15 Republicans listed in the competitive “toss-up” and “leans Republican” columns in the vulnerable seat listings above. Even if the Democrats were to hold all their current seats — unlikely — and defeat all of the most vulnerable Republicans, they’d still be two seats shy of a majority. Several of the Republicans in the “likely” column could move to a more competitive category, but just as many or more are probably closer to moving off the list into “safe” territory.
2. The national political winds appear pretty neutral right now. President Obama’s net approval rating is slightly negative: the poll average at RealClearPolitics.com put his approval/disapproval at 46.7%/48.0%, and Huffington Post’s Pollster average has it at a 47.0%/47.9% spread; meanwhile, Pollster gives Republicans a tiny 0.5 percentage point-lead on the national House generic ballot question, while RealClearPolitics gives the Democrats a small 3.3 point-lead. These are not numbers that argue for big movement either way, and a static environment is good for the party who already controls the House. If things sour for one party or the other between now and November 2014, history suggests it will be the Democrats who are harmed, because they hold the presidency. Not to mention, the dark cloud of bad headlines and scandals hovering over the White House could also harm Democratic prospects next year if they linger.
3. The Democrats’ most vulnerable seats are more vulnerable than the Republicans’ most vulnerable seats. Of the 34 seats in the highly competitive leans and toss-up categories — 19 held by Democrats, 15 held by Republicans — Republicans not only have an edge because they have fewer seats to defend, but also because they did better in their seats in 2012 than Democrats did in theirs. Democrats won their 19 toss-up and leaning seats by an average of 4.1 percentage points, while Republicans won their toss-ups/leaners by 6.3 points. In other words, Republicans have a slightly better and slightly longer list of true targets.
Potential Democratic House candidates who are mulling runs are probably aware of these basic obstacles, which helps explain why Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), concedes that many Democrats, particularly ones running in more conservative districts, would prefer to wait until 2016 to run, when Hillary Clinton might be at the top of the ticket.
There are only nine ratings changes in this update: seven are in favor of the Republicans, and two are in favor of the Democrats.
The first true retirement of the 2014 cycle, that of Tea Party leader Rep. Michele Bachmann (R, MN-6), has actually proven to be a boon to her party. Bachmann, because of her highly controversial history, could have potentially kicked away a heavily Republican seat. Now, her retirement — and the subsequent exit of her 2012 opponent, businessman Jim Graves (D), from the 2014 field — shifts this race off the board. Also leaving the list of competitive seats is that of Rep. Steve King (R, IA-4). Now that he is officially not running for the U.S. Senate, it seems unlikely his seat will be a target. Former Iowa First Lady Christie Vilsack (D) ran a spirited 2012 campaign against King — who like Bachmann is a conservative firebrand — but still lost by eight points in a district that President Obama also lost by eight points. Vilsack isn’t running again, and King should be fine. And now that Rep. Kristi Noem (R, SD-AL) has passed on a Senate run, her seat also moves to safe territory.
The two races shifting toward the Democrats have to do with candidate recruitment. Democrats are excited by the candidacy of lawyer Gwen Graham, daughter of former Sen./Gov. Bob Graham (D-FL), against Rep. Steve Southerland (R, FL-2) in a panhandle district. The area might be a little too conservative for Democrats these days, but Graham should be able to run a good race against Southerland. Meanwhile, former state Rep. Jennifer Garrison (D-OH) is being recruited by the DCCC for a run in OH-6, an Ohio River district now held by Rep. Bill Johnson (R), who — like Southerland — first won in 2010. Garrison may be a female Democrat, but she’s not someone who is likely to be supported by the liberal EMILY’s List: She’s anti-abortion, and she acquired a rather notorious reputation amongst Ohio liberals for winning a seat in the state legislature by running to the right of a Republican incumbent on gay marriage in 2004. At this point, OH-6 belongs on the list of competitive districts, although Johnson remains a clear favorite. (State Sen. Lou Gentile is another possible Democratic candidate in OH-6.)
We suspect that even socially conservative Democrats are going to have a hard time in Appalachia this cycle given President Obama’s immense unpopularity there; recall that Clinton destroyed Obama in this part of the country in the 2008 primary. Whether the shift away from Democrats in Appalachia is temporary or permanent will be a big question that a Clinton presidential campaign can help answer, but that’s a topic for beyond 2014. Other seats similar to OH-6 on our competitive race list are KY-6 and PA-12, which Republicans flipped in 2012, and WV-2, which Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) is vacating to run for the Senate. Keep an eye in particular on PA-12, where ex-Rep. Mark Critz (D) is considering a comeback against Rep. Keith Rothfus (R).
The other four seats with rating changes are in California and Illinois, two safe Democratic presidential states that could nonetheless have a lot of action in the House. They deserve a closer look.
Republican targets, Democratic turf
Ronald Reagan grew up in the Land of Lincoln and made his political name in the Golden State, and both states voted for him twice in his presidential victories. But these states are Democratic bastions now, and the party’s dominance in both extends to the congressional delegations: Democrats hold 38 of 53 seats in California (72%) and 12 of 18 seats (67%) in Illinois. Democrats picked up four seats in each state last fall, which, combined, accounted for their entire national net gain in House seats (eight seats). Redistricting — partisan in the case of Illinois, and nonpartisan in the case of California — ended up benefiting Democrats in both places.
Republicans hope that some of these seats snap back to them in 2014, when Obama won’t be on the ballot, and Democrats are trying to protect their freshmen while also seeing to some unfinished business in both places. More than 20% of all the races listed on our competitive charts are located in California or Illinois (16 of 72). Of those 16, Democrats currently hold 11.
The biggest shift of any House race over the past couple months comes in the district of Rep. Scott Peters (D, CA-52), which moves from likely Democratic to toss-up thanks to the entry of Carl DeMaio, a Republican who nearly won San Diego’s mayoral race in 2012. DeMaio, who is openly gay, is presenting himself as a new Republican focused on economic as opposed to social issues, although he “was more conservative than the Republicans whom San Diego voters generally favor for mayor,” according to a recent Los Angeles Times article. Republicans are touting an internal poll from late April showing DeMaio up 10, which is not particularly believable. Internal polls are almost always too optimistic for the side that commissions them, and Republicans have a “boy who cried wolf” problem in particular given the poor track record of their internal 2012 surveys. That said, this is probably a legitimate coin flip race in a district where President Obama won about 52% of the vote.
Another potentially close race is developing in the Greater Chicago area, where ex-Rep. Bob Dold (R) is seeking a rematch against the man who just barely defeated him in 2012, Rep. Brad Schneider (D, IL-10). This district is one that used to be held by now-Sen. Mark Kirk (R), so it has long favored moderate Republicans. However, President Obama won 58% of the vote here; granted, that might be a bit inflated because of the president’s home field advantage, but the partisan lean of the district is enough to keep Schneider a small favorite for now. Downstate, Democrats are pleased to have recruited Ann Callis (D), a former judge, to run against Rep. Rodney Davis (R, IL-13). Davis remains a small favorite in a district that Mitt Romney barely won, although he first needs to contend with a primary challenge from Erika Harold, a former Miss America (who also has a Harvard degree). A primary could do Davis, a relative political newcomer, some good — former NBA star Allen Iverson might not have liked “practice,” but some politicians could use it. The same goes for the top Democratic recruit in CA-31, Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar. A number of Democrats, including Aguilar and former Rep. Joe Baca, are competing for the right to challenge 2012 accidental winner Rep. Gary Miller (R). Given that Aguilar sleepwalked through the 2012 top-two primary and missed the chance to face Miller, a full primary campaign might do him some good.
Moving on to the competitive list, but only into the likely category, are Reps. Lois Capps (D, CA-24) and Bill Foster (D, IL-11). It wouldn’t be accurate to call them safe at this point, but they are heavy favorites to win reelection. Capps, 75, is sometimes mentioned as a possible retiree.
These aforementioned House races, and the others listed on the competitive race charts above, could dominate the political action in both states. California has no Senate race, and Gov. Jerry Brown (D) is a heavy favorite for reelection. Sen. Dick Durbin (D) should have a cakewalk reelection in Illinois, although the gubernatorial race could be competitive. That largely depends on what popular state Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D) does; her entry into the contest could turn it into a snorer. Perhaps Brown and Madigan could provide some coattails in a year without a presidential race.
The wild card: Redistricting
It is an overlooked fact that in 2004, while President George W. Bush was winning reelection and Republicans were padding their then-advantage in the U.S. Senate, Democrats actually gained two House seats — if one discounts Texas, that is.
In the 49 other states, Democrats gained a net of two seats in the House. But when Bush’s Lone Star State was added to the total, Republicans gained four seats nationwide. A 2003 remap of the Lone Star State, masterminded by then-U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), led to a six-seat Republican gain there.
In nearly every state, redistricting is a once-in-a-decade affair that happens in a year that ends in an “01” or an “02.” But not everywhere, and not in Texas, which is accustomed to redistricting being a multi-year process.
Texas legislators are currently holding a special session to deal with redistricting. Basically, Republicans passed a House redistricting plan last cycle that was too friendly to their own party and not friendly enough to the minority population in Texas, which accounts for nearly all of the state’s booming population growth. A court altered the map for use in last year’s election, but the expectation was that the legislature would revisit the map this cycle. Gov. Rick Perry (R) and state Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) want the legislature to just ratify the court-drawn map for use for the rest of the decade, but it’s possible that such a decision would not pass legal muster. If the courts end up drawing the map, Democrats could make a dent in the state’s 24-12 Republican-controlled House delegation. (Under the current map, only one of the 36 House districts is truly competitive: TX-23, held by freshman Democrat Pete Gallego.)
Complicating matters further is that the U.S. Supreme Court is contemplating a challenge that could effectively end Justice Department preclearance of new redistricting maps in places with a history of racial discrimination, like Texas.
In other words, Texas redistricting is a mess, and it appears the courts will have their say: On Wednesday, the Republican-controlled state Senate redistricting committee approved the interim (current) map on a party-line vote, and the full Senate and House are expected to follow suit. Then come the lawsuits.
Florida, too, has an ongoing legal battle over redistricting, which could also lead to an improved map for Democrats.
Courts drawing different maps in Florida and Texas that allow Democrats to gain seats out of both places would be the electoral equivalent of divine intervention — a dose of which, having to do with redistricting or something else, is almost a requirement for the Democrats to have a real shot at taking the House next year.
What 1986 tells us about 2014’s Senate and gubernatorial races
June 6th, 2013,
|Over the next several weeks, we’ll run full updates on 2014’s House, Senate and gubernatorial races. But as an introduction we wanted to offer a little history about the ebb and flow of American politics from Ronald Reagan’s last midterm in 1986, a seemingly odd election that saw Democrats make big gains in the Senate while Republicans picked up many governor’s mansions. In the absence of major national forces that year, the map (in the case of the Senate) and incumbency or lack thereof (in the case of the governors) seemed to play outsized roles in the outcome. What might that mean for 2014? Read on.
– The Editors
On Nov. 3, 1986 — one day before the U.S. midterm elections — a Lebanese magazine first reported on what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal. By the morning after the election, the scandal involving the sale of weapons to Iran in order to secure the release of American hostages held by Iranian terrorists in Lebanon hit newspapers in the United States.
Iran-Contra did damage to President Reagan’s reputation, although from a strictly electoral standpoint, it’s hard to argue it had much of an effect: The story broke in the United States just after the 1986 midterm, and its fallout did not prevent Reagan from handing off the White House to his vice president, George H.W. Bush, in the subsequent 1988 presidential election.
In fact, Reagan and his Republicans seemed to be in decent shape heading into Election Day: Reagan’s approval in the late-October Gallup Poll was a sterling 63% (it would dip more than 15 points by December, post-Iran-Contra). October unemployment, while still relatively high at 7.0%, was much lower than the dreadful 10.4% rate before Reagan’s unsuccessful 1982 midterm, and the economy was generally growing at a decent clip (first, second and third quarter gross domestic product growth was 3.9%, 1.6% and 3.9%, respectively).
In the election, Americans made what, on the surface, seems to be one of the great split decisions of modern elections: Democrats gained eight net Senate seats (retaking the Upper Chamber in the process), while Republicans gained eight net governorships. The House was relatively stable, with the Democrats making a modest five-seat gain.
Typically, the incumbent president’s party loses House seats, senators and governorships in midterms. In 17 post-World War II midterms, the average loss is about 27 House seats, four Senate seats and four governorships. Interestingly, Reagan’s loss of eight senators was the fourth-worst Senate performance in any postwar midterm, but his addition of eight governors was by far the best gubernatorial performance of any president in a recent midterm (the only other postwar president to see his party gain governorships in a midterm was Harry Truman, whose Democrats added two in the otherwise devastating Republican wave of 1946).
Chart 1: Midterm losses by president’s party, 1946-2010
Source: Pendulum Swing.
Given that 1986 was not an election defined by an unpopular president, scandal, wars or a bad economy, it could be viewed as simply a correction — that is, without major intervening factors, the big swings in the Senate and in the statehouses just represented a country reverting to the mean, particularly because the Senate and gubernatorial seats contested in 1986 were last up for election in two very different years: the Republican 1980 for the Senate seats, and the Democratic 1982 for the gubernatorial races.
The Senate: course correction
Reagan was elected in 1980 in the midst of Jimmy Carter’s sinking presidency, which was marked by a terrible economy — GDP contracted by a staggering -7.9% in the second quarter of 1980 — and the Iranian hostage crisis. Carter fell, and he took the Democratic Senate majority with him: Republicans netted 12 Senate seats that year, and defeated nine incumbents, including some of the Senate’s leading Democrats: Sens. Frank Church (ID), Warren Magnuson (WA), George McGovern (SD) and Gaylord Nelson (WI) were among those washed away by the Reagan Revolution.
Many of the freshmen Republicans were elected from places that, back then, did not elect Republicans to the Senate. For instance, Alabama and Georgia had never elected a Republican senator, and Florida and North Carolina had elected only one apiece before 1980.
Chart 2: Senate seats that switched parties, 1980 and 1986
Note: Names in bold were incumbents.
Source: Crystal Ball research and America Votes volumes 14-17.
Six years later, without Reagan on the ticket, those same Senate seats were up for election, and Democrats swept all four of the southern seats that had flipped in 1980. The “Solid South” was still overwhelmingly Democratic back then in non-presidential politics, and it reasserted itself. That’s no longer the case, and a good example of this change is Alabama, which in 1986 elected Richard Shelby (D) to replace freshman Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R). Shelby remains in the Senate, but he’s now a Republican.
The Democrats also won seats in the Dakotas, which despite their Republican tilt at the presidential level often send Democrats to Congress even today, as well as in Maryland and Washington, two generally Democratic states. Indeed, Sen. Charles “Mac” Mathias (R-MD) was a moderate Republican who thrived despite Maryland’s Democratic leanings; after he retired, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) comfortably won the seat and hasn’t been threatened since. Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-NV) would have been easily reelected, but he too opted to retire, and despite Reagan campaigning twice in Nevada the week before the election imploring voters to help his party keep control of the Senate, James Santini (R) lost to now-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D).
Republicans did actually win a Democrat-held seat — an open contest in Missouri won by Kit Bond, who retired from the Senate in 2010 — but 1986 generally represented a receding of 1980’s Republican tide. The Republicans also didn’t have the same luck in 1986 that they did in 1980; as Lou Cannon notes in his respected biography of the 40th president, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, “Republicans won nearly every close [Senate] contest in 1980, while losing eleven of the fifteen closest races in 1986.”
Unfortunately for Democrats this cycle, their situation is at least somewhat similar to that of the Republicans in 1986. The last time this class of Senate seats was contested was 2008, which was a great Democratic year that featured a party change in the White House amid a terrible economy and an unpopular incumbent president. That’s not all that dissimilar to the circumstances of 1980. Democrats already have suffered some key retirements, like Republicans did with Laxalt and Mathias in 1986, that put some of their seats at risk: Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia in particular, with Iowa and Michigan also made more competitive because they will be open-seat contests next year. Meanwhile, a couple Democratic freshmen elected in a good environment in 2008 — Sens. Mark Begich (AK) and Kay Hagan (NC) — could be in for some trouble this time. Throw in some vulnerable veteran incumbents, such as Sens. Mark Pryor (AR) and Mary Landrieu (LA), and the stage is set for at least modest Republican gains, no matter what the overall political environment looks like.
For Republicans in 1980 — who captured the Senate for the first time since 1952 — the Reagan wave put them at what proved to be an unsustainably high crest. For Democrats, 2008 helped them get to a 60-seat majority for a time between the 2008 and 2010 elections. That proved unsustainable, and so might their 55-seat majority — soon to be at least temporarily reduced to 54 after Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) replaces the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D).
In other words, the story of 1986 is that the Republican Senate losses had very little to do with an overarching political environment. The Republicans just overextended themselves in a big election year, and came back to Earth in a neutral one. It’s an easy thing to imagine happening in the Senate this year. As one smart Democrat told us recently, even if President Obama is in good shape politically next year, the Democrats could still suffer a really bad Senate cycle simply because of the map.
The governors: Stay the course
The other side of 1986’s coin was the gubernatorial campaign, where Republicans picked up eight governor’s mansions. Here, the connection to the previous election is more tenuous, but some lessons remain for 2014.
Four years earlier, in 1982, Democrats netted seven governorships. Readers will recognize some of the names in Chart 3, including a certain “man from Hope” who went on to be president. Then-former Gov. Bill Clinton (D-AR) was one of the many Democrats who had a bad Election Day in 1980, but because of Arkansas’ two-year gubernatorial term back in the 1980s, Clinton came right back in the more favorable 1982 cycle to get revenge on Gov. Frank White (R).
Chart 3: Governorships that changed party control, 1982 and 1986
Note: Names in bold were incumbents.
Source: Crystal Ball research and America Votes volumes 14-17.
Democrats held 34 of the 50 governorships after the 1982 election (the lion’s share of U.S. governorships are elected in midterm years), and they were helped in part by the fact that many of their incumbents had been elected in 1978, and thus won second terms in 1982. (The pro-Democratic environment probably also helped.)
Aiding Republicans in 1986 was that many of those incumbent Democratic governors were term-limited or did not stand for reelection. Of the 11 Democratic governorships that Republicans flipped to their party in 1986, only two were held by incumbents: Govs. Mark White (D-TX) and Tony Earl (D-WI), who both were first elected in 1982 only to lose four years later. Meanwhile, Democrats won three Republican-controlled statehouses in 1986, but they didn’t beat any incumbents.
Over the past half century, about four of every five incumbent governors who have run in a general election have been reelected,* so this incumbency advantage is important. Even in 2010, when Republicans netted six additional governorships, they only defeated two incumbents: Govs. Chet Culver (D-IA) and Ted Strickland (D-OH). A staggering 17** states changed the party of their governor in 2010, but the two aforementioned incumbents were the only ones to lose.
This cycle, it appears that there aren’t going to be that many open gubernatorial races. At this point, all nine first-term Republican incumbents who hold governorships in states President Obama won in 2008 and 2012 look like they’re running again: Rick Scott (FL), Terry Branstad (IA), Paul LePage (ME), Rick Snyder (MI), Brian Sandoval (NV), Susana Martinez (NM), John Kasich (OH), Tom Corbett (PA) and Scott Walker (WI). (Perhaps Branstad will retire, but probably not.) So far, only five of the 36 gubernatorial races coming up in 2014 will be open seats: Arizona and Nebraska on the Republican side, and Arkansas, Maryland and Massachusetts on the Democratic.
While Republicans hold an outsized number of governorships — 30 of 50 — the fact that they are likely to have incumbents running in so many places (particularly in states that lean Democratic at the presidential level) might insulate them from losses, although there are a number of Republican incumbents — Scott, LePage, Snyder and Corbett stick out — who could lose as incumbents anyway.
There are many things we do not yet know about the midterm election: The state of the economy and President Obama’s approval rating a year from now are both mysteries. What we do know, though, is the history — both of American midterms in general and of the Senate and gubernatorial seats being contested this cycle. A simple reading shows that Republicans could benefit from a course correction in the Senate, much like Democrats did in 1986. And while Republicans would seem to be overextended on the gubernatorial map, the power of incumbency could protect them, which Democrats lacked in many key races in 1986. Then again, maybe a scandal or some other circumstance — one already reported or not — could change everything. Or, like in the case of Iran-Contra, happen too late to matter.
*Figure is from Crystal Ball calculations using Vital Statistics on American Politics 2011-2012. This total does not include the handful of states that elect their governors in odd-numbered years.
**Does not include Florida. Republican Gov. Charlie Crist ran for the Senate as an independent, and Republican Rick Scott won the governor’s race. The total does include Rhode Island, where then-independent (now Democrat) Lincoln Chafee took the governorship after Don Carcieri, a Republican, was prevented by term limits from running again.
Considering alternate ways to cast a ballot
June 6th, 2013,
In an earlier thought experiment for this site, I examined the history of multiple-member and statewide at-large districts in congressional elections, and wondered whether a movement away from the near-universal use of single-member districts (SMDs) in American legislative elections might be advisable and politically feasible. Electoral systems that feature SMDs with plurality rule — like the United States and Great Britain — tend to gravitate into two-party duopolies, a situation that frustrates third-party supporters and self-identified independents. Despite being paralyzed by polarized politics, policy gridlock and low approval ratings, the furthest thing from the minds of members of Congress is a reform campaign to alter an electoral system that, by definition, has made them winners already.
District magnitude is only part of the equation, however. Given pervasive gerrymandering and a shrinking number of competitive districts, any serious reform of congressional elections might also entail changes to our voting rules — that is, how votes are cast by voters and aggregated to determine winners. Voting rules reform wouldn’t automatically guarantee better candidates, more electoral competition, higher voter turnout, lower citizen apathy or a more responsive and responsible Congress. But it almost certainly couldn’t make matters worse.
So what sort of voting rule reforms might significantly alter the composition of Congress, encourage greater voter participation and create a more responsive national legislature?
Changing the rules, changing behavior
Any discussion of voting rule reform must begin with the important realization that changing voting rules would not only alter outcomes because of how votes are aggregated, but could also affect the behavior of voters in two ways. First, election rules affect the incentives and thus likelihood that voters will turn out to vote. Second, and relatedly, changes could affect how voters express their preferences once they do turn out to vote, especially if they are able to indicate secondary and alternative preferences and therefore vote strategically.
Starting with turnout incentives, voters in single-member, plurality rule U.S. House districts that are also highly gerrymandered often have little incentive to turn out. A perceived lack of electoral importance may be a strong deterrent to registered Republicans in heavily Democratic districts (or vice versa), non-white voters in overwhelmingly white districts, female voters facing a ballot on which all nominees are men, or third-party or independent voters in nearly every House district. There may be other elective offices — like the presidential race — or ballot measures that induce a voter to show up on Election Day, of course; but if the results in these contests also seem pre-ordained, there is little reason to vote.
Other countries employ a variety of alternative voting rules, including at-large, multiple-member districts with plurality voting, majority-rule runoffs in single-member districts, instant runoff voting, approval voting, proportional representation, and transferable vote systems, among others. A few exceptions aside, however, the United States features the near-universal use of SMDs with plurality rule. Voting rule experts and electoral reform advocates believe alternative systems would encourage higher voter participation rates and create more competitive elections. Given America’s comparatively low turnout rates, it’s hard to imagine participation rates falling much further.
The critique of single-member, plurality-rule systems is that they both discourage and preclude the expression of secondary preferences, thereby reducing participation rates and reinforcing the power of the two dominant parties. Independent or alternative gerrymandering procedures, argues Rob Richie of the electoral non-profit FairVote.org, might help but alone are insufficient. “Any assumption that nationwide independent redistricting commissions would do away with partisan bias would only hold true if a commission’s only priority was fair partisan representation,” Richie wrote recently in Salon. FairVote advocates the use of multiple-member districts and some form of instant run-off voting (IRV) — in which voters can indicate preferences of not just their favorite candidate but also secondary (and so on) preferences — in the belief that it would produce winners more aligned with voters’ actual ideological-partisan attachments. The good news is that there is a limited history of using IRV by some American states; the bad news is that its use is, well, rather limited.
As for the second effect — the strategic voting implications of alternative voting rules — there’s no doubt that if alternative voting rules were adopted, American voters would need to think differently at the polls. Consider the simplified scenario below featuring nine voters (R through Z) and eight candidates (Adams through Harrison), and the outcomes under five distinct voting rules: (1) single-member district plurality rule; (2) two-member district with plurality rule; (3) majority rule run-off; (4) approval voting; and (5) Borda count. For each voter, their preferences for the candidates are ranked, highest to lowest, from 1 to 8, as shown in Chart 1.
Chart 1: Voting preferences of voters R through Z
1. Single-member district with plurality rule: Buchanan has the most first place votes, with four. Winner: Buchanan.
2. Multi-member district (two members) with plurality rule: Buchanan finishes first, Fillmore second with three votes. Winners: Buchanan and Fillmore.
3. Majority rule run-off: In a single-member district with majority rule run-off, and presuming the top two finishers proceed to the run-off, Voters U and V would decide between the top two vote-getters, and both prefer Fillmore to Buchanan. Winner: Fillmore.
4. Approval voting: For sake of argument, stipulate that voters approve of any candidate they rate among their top three preferences, and approval votes count one each for either a first, second or third preference. Cleveland is rated in the top three by seven of the nine voters. Winner: Cleveland.
5. Borda Count: Similar to the method used by writers and coaches to rank NCAA college football teams, points are assigned in inverse order to ranking. In our example, that means 8 points for a top preference, 7 points for a second-highest preference, and so on. Delano has the highest Borda count (1 first = 8, + four seconds = 28, + one third = 6, + two fifths = 8, + one eighth = 1, yielding a total of 51). Winner: Delano.
If not already evident, the intentionally-contrived exercise above demonstrates that voting rules matter: Without changing the number of voters or their preferences, five different rules produced five different outcomes. Political scientists and political theorists can debate which voting rules produce the “best” or most “fair” translation of votes into seats. But the overarching fact remains the same: Changing the rules for election members of Congress (or any other legislature) potentially changes the composition of the legislature.
The real question here is not whether voting rule changes would dramatically affect congressional election outcomes, but whether there is any sort of political will to fundamentally restructure the way we elect members of Congress. Despite the earnest efforts of FairVote.org and other electoral reform advocates to move legislation through Congress or the state legislatures, what is probably needed first is a widespread voter education effort. Americans seem relatively attuned to, and frustrated by, certain electoral realities, including pervasive gerrymandering, the rising power of campaign money, and the related advantages enjoyed by entrenched, well-financed incumbents in safe districts.
But it is precisely because the “permanent Congress” is viewed as the byproduct of strategic mapmaking and the perverse influence of campaign money that distracts from the potentially salutary effects of structural electoral reform. Election reform advocates must first get Americans to properly recognize that the roots of the problem reside as much in the voting rules as in campaign finance law or the redistricting process.
|Thomas F. Schaller is a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the author of Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South and national political columnist for the Baltimore Sun.|