The '96 Election: Voter Turnout, Gerrymandering, and PR

Douglas J. Amy

Mount Holyoke College

Despite frenzied get-out-the-vote efforts and a massive campaign to register millions of new voters, voter turnout plunged to a dismal 49% in this last election, putting us again at the bottom of the list among Western democracies.

One of the reasons for this embarrassingly low level of civic participation was the lack of a suspenseful presidential race. Polls had made it clear that Bill Clinton was going to win, and this dampened the enthusiasm of many voters especially Dole supporters.

But while the lack of a real contest on the presidential level was evident to everyone, few Americans realize that we are suffering from an epidemic of these "no contest" contests on all levels of government. For many years now, a large percentage of legislative races on the federal and state level have been routinely non-competitive. A study by the Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington, D.C. found that in the 1994 elections:

And this trend continued in the recent election. In Maryland, for instance, six out eight U.S. House seats were won by landslides, with the average margin of victory being 39% of the vote.

What is even more disturbing is that this "no contest" situation is largely intentional. Politicians from both parties put a great deal of effort into drawing "safe" election districts that give their incumbent candidates large majorities. This gerrymandering is one of the main reasons for the prevalence of these non-competitive districts.

But perhaps what is most interesting about this problem is that most other Western democracies don't suffer from it. Most of them use a different election system that virtually eliminates "safe" districts and makes all districts competitive.

The system is called proportional representation elections. In this system, candidates are elected in large multi- member districts, and the number of seats a party wins is determined by its proportion of the vote. So if there is a ten-member district, and the Democrats get 60% of the votes, they get six out of the ten seats. More importantly, if the Republicans get only 40%, they still get four of the seats. Under this arrangement there is always a reason for voters to turn out, because they can always win some representation, even if they are in the minority.

In our current winner-take-all system, voters in the clear minority in a single-member district find voting a largely futile act. And it makes no difference whether the minority party gets 20% or 40% of the vote in a district, it still loses.

But under proportional representation, the size of the vote for a party does make a difference, even for the minority, because the more votes a party gets the more seats it wins. In a ten-seat district, a party moving from 20% to 40% of the vote would gain two seats. By rewarding turnout in this way, proportional representation creates a strong incentive for voters of all parties to go to the polls. This is one reason why countries like Norway, Belgium, Austria, and the Netherlands commonly have turnout rates of between 80% and 90%.

Adopting proportional representation for our state and federal legislatures would involve consolidating our current single-member districts into larger multi-member districts. For example, in a plan developed by the Center for Voting and Democracy, the eleven single-member Congressional districts in Georgia could be combined into two 3-seat districts and one 5-seat district. Such a plan would not violate the U.S. Constitution, but it would require the approval of Congress.

These multi-member PR districts are not only more competitive, they also make gerrymandering much more difficult. In this system, it does no good for a party to try to create a "safe" district in which the opposing party has little possibility of winning representation. With multi-member districts, the minority party always has a good chance to win some seats. For this reason, redistricting in proportional representation countries is a relatively mundane activity, rather than the pitched political battle that is typical here.

So if we want more participation in U.S. elections and if we are sick of gerrymandering and "no contest" contests, we need to start looking more closely at the proportional representation option. While this reform was virtually unheard of in this country a few years ago, interest in it has been growing rapidly. An increasing number of political reformers have embraced this alternative, citing its many advantages:

But proportional representation's ability to encourage voter turnout should be another reason to look at this reform more closely. If we are serious about revitalizing interest in American elections and we want a government that genuinely represents all the people, we can't afford to ignore this intriguing alternative.

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