A Proposal for Democratic Election Reform
Throughout our history as Washingtonians we have held and honoured a reputation as a progressive society, and hold a rich tradition of open and democratic elections. We continue to cling to the classic blanket primary system and its populist successor, the Top Two primary, in spite of the fact that both major parties stridently oppose them. These election systems hold their popularity through each generation because the citizenry believes they allow the voter to more accurately choose the candidate that best represents them. These systems are noble and more democratic than most other states' comparable systems, but the time is ripe to take election reform to the next level and cement the state's progressive reputation in the future.
The way to do this is to implement Proportional Representation. Proportional Representation systems have the ability to better match voter sentiment because it allows the seats of a legislative body to be distributed at the same or a similar weight as the votes were tallied. Whereas in our current single-member "First Past the Post" system, one candidate is elected per district and this leaves citizens who voted for other candidates without suitable representation. It also skews the representation of a legislative body towards a dominant regional group, and leaves open the potential for unfair district gerrymandering.
We can see evidence of the First Past the Post distribution skew everywhere. Take, for example, the seats of the state House of Representatives for Eastern Washington in the 2004 election. This region has a reputation as very Republican and the results bear that out, as Republicans captured 19 of 22 Eastern Washington seats that cycle. It is also worth noting that, being a presidential year where patriotism and activism runs high, Democrats were able to run candidates in 21 of those 22 races. In the 21 races where there were both Democratic and Republican candidates, Republicans captured 61.7% of the combined vote versus 38.1% for Democrats. When you consider that Republicans hold 86% of these contested seats despite only earning 62% of the vote, the First Past the Post skew becomes apparent. It's a similar story in the 2006 elections, where many of these districts were won by unopposed candidates. Twelve of the 22 districts were contested by both parties in 2006, and Republicans won 57.7% against 42.3% for Democrats. One could argue the Proportional Representation-First Past the Post split is even more egregious in this scenario, where Republicans won 75% of these twelve seats while only taking 58% of the combined vote. This with a very close Democratic pickup in Spokane's 6th district in a Democratic year. It's the same story in other areas, too.
Proportional Representation most certainly better represents the will of voters and electing legislators from statewide party lists allows even the most disaffected regional minority party voter to feel as if their vote counted and they have representation in the legislature. Using a Proportional Representation model for Washington would also have the potential to elect third party legislators, which is nearly impossible in the First Past the Post model. The system would clearly be a boon to a group like the Libertarian Party, who has historically earned mid-single digits in statewide elections. If a Libertarian legislator were elected proportionally, it would finally give thousands of voters across Washington the voice they deserve in Olympia. In this way, Proportional Representation usually broadens the political spectrum in jurisdictions in which it is used. In foreign governments like Norway's, they have seven different parties that surpassed the minimum vote percentage to elect Storting members. These parties then had to form coalitions representing a centre-left governing bloc and a centre-right opposition bloc. In a country with a two-party system like the United States, it gives these minor parties a shot at electing someone at the state level, a near impossibility otherwise. In that scenario, these parties would have a mouthpiece in government to push forth their agenda and allow voters to better acquaint themselves with their proposals. They would then have the potential to grow their ranks, and while that is unlikely, it still gives these voters the chance to be properly represented.
The downside to a solely proportional system is that it rids citizens of electing officials who are locally-accountable. This is why most international countries that utilize Proportional Representation use a combination of the latter and First Past the Post systems. One can see examples of this in the national governments of Australia, France, Germany, Mexico, and Japan to name a few. Britain has also begun implementing a form of Proportional Representation in its devolved parliaments for Scotland and Wales. Electing, say, half of a legislative body proportionally and half in single-member districts is truly a best of both worlds approach. It gives voters in a region a voice in government who is accountable to voters of that area as well as utilizing the Proportional system to more fairly distribute the other half of the body. Required vote percentages to earn proportional seats varies by country, from Japan's meager 2% hurdle for seats in its upper house to the Russian Federation's high bar of 7%, raised by President Putin as a means to stifle opposition. The latter example shows that Proportional Representation isn't always fairly implemented, but a more modest requirement like Japan's allows for a fair seat distribution.
Switching to a partially-proportional system is easier than one might think. The way the state House of Representatives is currently elected is ideal for a half-and-half setup, as each district elects two representatives. This proposal would require no alteration of legislative district boundaries to implement. The state Senate retains 100% First Past the Post voting in its current districts, but each district would elect one representative instead of two, with the other seat in each district being elected via statewide party lists. This would make the state House of Representatives, the "people's house," half proportionally-elected. The statewide party lists allow each party on the ballot to list all their candidates seeking proportional seats. A voter would then choose which party to give his or her proportional vote by selecting which candidate in their preferred party they most desire to be elected. For example, if a voter supports the Democratic Party list and prefers Lynn Kessler above all others on the list, that voter would vote for Kessler in the Democratic list and vote in no other lists. Then if the Democratic Party earns 50% of the statewide vote, or about 24 of the 49 proportional seats, the top 24 vote getters in the Democratic list would be elected. If Kessler were in the top 24, the voter would have helped elect her on the proportional list, while if she failed to make the top 24, the voter would still have 24 Democratic representatives elected on their preferred list even if the voter's home district went Republican in its single-member districts. As for the required threshold to earn proportional seats, it would be most prudent to set it at two to three percent of the vote in the Japanese mold. This modest bar maximizes the opportunity for minor party candidates to compete, and thereby give a typically-disaffected minority of voters a reason to participate.
There's little doubt both major parties would oppose such a radical idea. They have little reason to support it. The current system favours them and with their best interests at heart would not want anyone to crash their party. This is not important, though. The parties have always resisted election reform, whether it was to bring about primary elections instead of conventions or to implement open primary systems instead of closed partisan primaries. Washington has been on the cutting edge of progressive election reform against the parties' wishes multiple times and will continue to be in the future. Being as such an idea would likely be dead long before reaching a floor vote in the legislature the obvious way to further this proposal is through the initiative process. This is not to say that I necessarily intend to do this, but in this post-election downtime I thought this was as good a time as any to put the idea out in the public sphere. If you believe in building a more fair and democratic government, it starts with how we elect our representatives. Tell your friends.
Labels: Election Reform