Some Lessons on the "Mechanics" of Democracy

by Steven Hill
This article was published in the Los Angeles Times, February 1996

Imagine your car breaking down on the highway, totally dead. It won't restart, so you have it towed to an auto mechanic, who looks it over and promptly announces what he or she thinks is wrong: "You have to fix the headlights."

You don't have to be a mechanical genius to know that the problem is not the headlights. The problem, most certainly, has to do with the engine of the car.

The final recommendations of the California Constitution Revision Commission are a lot like that myopic mechanic. That body was charged with the task of divining ways of "improving accountability and responsiveness of government," "making government mo re representative," and other worthy goals. Among the commission's recommendations were the following: replacing the current two-house state legislature with a unicameral legislature; making the offices of the state treasurer, schools superintendent and insurance commissioner appointive rather than elective; changing the state initiative process; requiring that two year state budgets be approved by a simple majority, rather than the current two-thirds; and other reforms too numerous to name.

Not that some of these reforms aren't an improvement. But the CCRC's recommendations are like that of the mechanic who, upon seeing the lifeless auto, recommended a change of headlights. One wants to yell as loudly as possible: "It's the engine, stupi d!"

The engine of any democracy is the voting system. And it just so happens that California and the United States use an antiquated 200 year old "winner take all" voting system that most of the major democracies of the world have long since discarded. The se democracies instead use various proportional representation voting systems. Here are a few of the comparative results:

1) the U.S. is near the bottom of the barrel in terms of voter turnout. For the 1994 Congressional elections, eligible voter turnout was an embarrassingly low 34%. California voter turnout was 33%. Two thirds of voters did not vote! Such voter turnou ts are typical for winner take all countries. Meanwhile, proportional representation democracies enjoy voter turnouts of 70-90% of eligible voters.

2) Of the 33% of Californians who bothered voting, only 62% of these voted for a winner. That means only 21% of eligible voters helped elect someone. The figure was the same for the U.S. as a whole, where over 24 million voters won no representation. Meanwhile, in the 1994 proportional representation elections in Germany and South Africa, 76.3 and 85.0 percent of eligible voters helped elect someone. These are common numbers for proportional democracies.

3) 71% of Californians lived in Congressional districts that were won by a landslide (defined as winning by 20% or more). For almost three fourths of voters, the results were known before they even went to the polls! These voters lived in non-competitiv e districts where their vote didn't make a difference.

The picture that emerges about democracy in California and the U.S. is that, compared to proportional representation democracies, most people don't vote; and of those few who do vote, their vote doesn't count for much. Voters are stuck choosing between the "lesser of two evils" in uncompetitive races where, even during the year of the so-called Republican Revolution, over 90% of incumbents who ran for office won re-election.

Democracy in California and the United States is in crisis. Voters are no longer buying what the two major parties are selling. It's like going into a grocery store to do your shopping, but you discover there's only two brands of everything that increa singly taste the same. Voters want more electable choices -- including third parties and independents -- who are not trying to con them for their votes, and who stand on some principles that they can be held accountable to.

A winner take all voting system will never deliver that to them. It's not a matter of a unicameral legislature, or changing the state initiative process, or approving budgets by a majority. It's the engine of this democracy that is broken, not the head lights. The more modern proportional representation voting systems, already in use all over the world, can deliver what voters are yearning for and what the CCRC was charged with delivering: more representation, more accountability, more responsiveness.

The CCRC heard testimony about proportional representation from many people around the state during their hearings, including Professor Rein Taageperra of the University of California, an expert on voting system reform. But they didn't study the idea se riously enough. Their final recommendations will do little to jump start the dead automobile of our democracy.

Steven Hill is a journalist and the west coast coordinator of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a non-profit organization that educates about voting systems and the Voting Rights Act. The Center has advised pla intiffs, defendants and judges in some of the most controversial voting rights decisions of the last several years, including Shaw v. Reno and Miller v. Johnson.

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