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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Dems’ Chances Undercut by Rigged System

Steven Hill has a disturbing article in Mother Jones, “Why the Democrats Will Keep Losing: Biases built in to our electoral institutions hurt the Democratic Party every time.” Hill, author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of America’s Winner Take All Politics, says:

…what has been completely missing from the conversation is the fact that even when the Democrats win more votes, they don’t necessarily win more seats. That’s true in the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House, and the Electoral College. That’s because there is a structural disadvantage for Democrats resulting from regional partisan demographics in red versus blue America that now are strongly embedded into our fundamental electoral institutions.
…Yet practically no one is talking about it. Even though this bias undercuts any attempts by liberals and Democrats to gain control over the government, and will continue to do so for years to come, no matter how many volunteers Democrats mobilize or how much money they raise, these sorts of structural barriers are being ignored.

Looking at the 2000 presidential election, for example, Hill notes:

Even though Al Gore won a half million more votes nationwide than George Bush in 2000, Bush beat Gore in 47 more of the 2002 congressional districts. And that’s up from a previous 19-seat edge, showing that trends are tilting Republican. The winner-take-all system distorts representation and the edge clearly gives Republicans an advantage, allowing them to win more than their fair share of seats. So the current Republican margin in the House of 232 to 203 — only 29 seats — actually is a decent showing for the Democrats. It will be exceedingly difficult for Democrats to improve on this.

In House of Reps races, Hill says:

When the two sides are tied nationally, the Republicans end up winning about 50 more House districts than the Democrats. Like the Conservatives in Britain, who in the UK’s recent elections won far fewer seats than Tony Blair’s Labour Party even though Labour only had 36% of the vote and 3% more than the Conservatives, the Democrats are undercut by regional partisan demographics funneled through a winner-take-all electoral system.
It turns out that there is a fundamental anti-urban (and thus anti-Democratic) bias with single-seat districts. The urban vote is more concentrated, and so it’s easier to pack Democratic voters into fewer districts. As Democratic redistricting strategist Sam Hirsch has noted, nice square districts are in effect a Republican gerrymander because they “combine a decade-old (but previously unnoticed) Republican bias” that along with a newly heightened degree of incumbent protection “has brought us one step closer to government under a United States House of Unrepresentatives.”

Hill’s analysis of the struggle for control of the U.S. Senate is also revealing:

The disproportionality is even worse in the United States Senate. Bush carried 31 of 50 states in 2004, showing Democrats’ near impossible battle to win a majority in the malapportioned Senate where each state, regardless of population size, has two U.S. Senators.
Yet the Democrats consistently win more votes for Senate than Republicans. The current 100 senators have been elected over the past three election cycles, dating back to the year 2000. According to Professor Matthew Shugart from University of California-San Diego, in those elections, over 200 million votes were cast in races choosing each of the fifty states’ two senators. The Republicans won 46.8% of the votes in these elections — not even close to a majority. The Democrats won 48.4% of the votes, more than the Republicans — yet the GOP currently holds a lopsided 55 to 44 majority. In 2004, over 51% of votes cast were for Democratic senatorial candidates, yet Republicans elected 19 of the 34 contested seats.
…The GOP has been over-represented in the Senate in nearly every election since 1958, primarily due to Republican success in low-population, conservative states in the West and South. Not surprisingly, the Senate is perhaps the most unrepresentative body in the world outside Britain’s House of Lords, with not only Democrats under-represented but only five of 100 seats held by racial minorities and only fourteen held by women.

Hill makes a strong case in his article that, even in 2004, when the electoral college appeared to almost work toward Kerry’s advantage, the GOP bias insured Bush’s victory. He concludes:

So from the Democratic Party perspective, the political geography does not work. In the current climate of Red vs. Blue America, any “emerging Democratic majority” must overcome an 18th-century political system that puts urban-centered Democrats at a decided disadvantage. As I wrote above, it’s like having a foot race in which one side (the Republicans) begins 10 yards in front of the other (the Democrats), election after election. It’s time to level the playing field.
But has this stark reality of our political landscape made a dent in liberal or Democratic understanding of “what to do?” Hardly. Instead, moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party have been cannibalizing each other over the no-win debate about the base versus swing voters. Or else they have been fiddling to the latest fad about Lakoffian reframing.
How convenient, to think you don’t have to engage in the hard work of enacting fundamental electoral reform, city by city and state-by-state, all you have to do is find better speechwriters and produce slicker TV ads and then the left can go back to its poetry nights.
It’s hard to hold out much hope for the Democratic Party as long as it remains railroaded by structural biases built-in to our basic electoral institutions of which they appear to be blissfully unaware.

Hill is correct that the electoral college and the U.S. Senate are fundamentally and irreparably anti-democratic, and a strong GOP bias corrupts many House Districts. But he ignores important demographic trends breaking significantly in the Dems’ favor (see Ruy Teixeira’s May 18 post, “Hunting for EV’s.”) Meanwhile, electoral reform will have to wait until Dems regain control of the executive and legislative branches and a majority of state legislatures. With that accomplished, a full-court press for a constitutional amendment providing direct popular election of the President would be good for starters. Until then, we have no choice but to fight harder, develop stronger candidates and build party unity.