Elections Decided Not by Voters
"Get Your Election Results Right Here!"
by Rob Richie and Steven HillEspecially meant for California readers, but all will find it revealing.
What if we were to tell you that we can predict the winners of 90 percent of the horse races at the race track? You might conclude that the races are fixed, and we're in on the fix.
Well, when it comes to California's state Assembly and U.S. House races, the results are fixed. A new study, called Monopoly Politics in California, by our non-partisan Center for Voting and Democracy, has predicted the winners in 90% of state Assembly races and 77% in the U.S. House races. The report also yields important insight into the real culprit behind our electoral depression.
Our Center looked at results in past state Assembly races and June's open primary, and compared that to the results in past governors' races and Propositions 209 and 187 by Assembly district to discover electoral trends. By doing that we were able to predict this November's winners—over two months before the actual election—for an astounding 73 out of 80 (91%) of state Assembly races, and 40 out of 52 (77%) of U.S. House seats in California.
Among our findings: Democrats will win 39 seats in the Assembly, 33 by lopsided landslides (a margin of 20 points or higher) and 6 more seats by a comfortable margin of 10 points or more. The Republicans will win 34 seats, 25 by landslides and 9 seats by a comfortable 10 point spread.
That leaves only seven Assembly races that are too close to call. Yet these seven "swing" seats may determine whether the Assembly goes Democratic or Republican, and that's where great gobs of attention and money are most likely to be spent.
What this also means, unfortunately, is that the voters in only seven districts will see exciting races that are hotly contested and will generate voter interest. But for the voters in the other 91% of California's state Assembly districts, the elections are already over. In fact, for all intents and purposes, these races have been over for months. There hasn't been anything to get jazzed about, because those districts are too noncompetitive to cause any surprises.
All the talk of how California's new open primary, or the governor's race, or even the Clinton scandal, might affect elections and create more competitive elections overlooks one glaring fact. Most Assembly and U.S. House districts in our "winner take all" system will never be competitive because a clear majority of voters in these districts prefer one political party over the other. Either due to incumbent gerrymandering—whereby the incumbents pick the voters before the voters pick them—or due to the dynamics of single-seat "winner take all" races that force voters into one of two political camps, Democrat or Republican, demography is destiny.
This fact directly impacts voter enthusiasm and turnout. The Center's previous studies have shown that, not surprisingly, voter turnout drops as the degree of competition decreases. Even when on the winning side, voters don't have a sense that their vote counts for much when their candidate always wins by a landslide. All voters are losers when the power of their vote is diminished by so many safe, noncompetitive seats.
But a more surprising finding of Monopoly Politics (www.fairvote.org) is the impact of safe seats on campaign finance reform. Predictions of winners can be made with great accuracy without knowing anything about inequities in campaign finance. Furthermore, the margins of victory more closely correlate to the partisan leanings of the district than to inequities in campaign finance. If money were the biggest factor, one would expect that winners spending more money would win by bigger margins. But that's not what happens.
That's because in most legislative districts in California and the U.S., campaign inequities are of secondary importance to partisan demographics in determining winners. If you are a Democrat in a solidly Republican district, a Republican in a solidly Democratic district, or a supporter of a minor party, you don't have a chance of electing your candidate, no matter how much money your candidate spends. In too many cases, unfortunately, the only electoral option for voters is to ratify the choice made for them by redistricting committees several years before.
"Monopoly Politics" also predicts the winners in 77% of U.S. House seats in California, with 34 seats (65%) won by landslides. These House seats are also a fait accompli, regardless of any goings-on in Washington DC, like impeachment hearings or scandal, and regardless of inequities in campaign finance.
So, unfortunately for most California voters, it's "No-Choice" elections again. Add to this the general malaise produced by scandals in Washington DC, and that's what adds up to pre-election predictions indicating that November's turnout may be one of the lowest yet.
Monopoly politics is no way to run a democracy. No wonder most voters lose interest, when their vote counts for so little. Various reforms should be made to the redistricting process to make our legislative races more competitive. Or better yet, we should break up these single seat districts and try three-seat districts elected by proportional representation. Now is the time to begin this discussion, since the next round of redistricting is scheduled for 2001.
Rob Richie and Steven Hill are, respectively, the Executive Director and West Coast director of the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org)
KEY FACTS for 1998 Assembly and U.S. House Elections in California* Incumbents * At least 50 out of 55 incumbents (91%) will win re-election to the Assembly * At least 40 out of 47 incumbents (85%) will win re-election to the U.S. House * At least 33 California incumbents in the U.S. House will repeat their landslide victories from 1996 * Competitiveness * 58 out of 80 races (73%) in California's Assembly will be won by landslides * 34 out of 52 races (65%) in CA's U.S. House races will be won by landslides * The winners in 73 out of 80 races (91%) in the Assembly are already known * The winners in 40 out of 52 races (77%) in California's U.S. House races are already known * Only 7 out of 80 (8.8%) Assembly races and 10 out of 52 (19%) U.S. House races in California are too close to call * Democrats will win 33 seats and Republicans 25 seats by landslides in the Assembly * Democrats will retain their majority in the Assembly * In 1996, California Democrats won 56% of the U.S. House seats with only 50% of the popular vote * In 1996 U.S. House races in California, the average margin of victory was 31%
So do we have democracy in the USA? What reforms would you propose?
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