by Stoney Bird
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits.
According to Gospel, Jesus was pretty good at cutting to the core of things.
If he had been looking at Washington’s recent redistricting exercise, he would have seen much that contradicts the ideal that a governing body should reflect the interests and desires of the electorate. These failures likely arose not because the Redistricting Commission abused its powers in some way, but because its hands were tied. They were tied — and irrevocably tied — because it had to fit its work into our antiquated winner-take-all voting system.
So, it’s not the Redistricting Commission who are the wolves in this story. It’s the election system itself. Let’s say it clearly. Winner-take-all elections produce unrepresentative government.
Elections of any kind were a wonderful idea in 1789 when this republic was founded, but the only kind of elections that anybody knew about at that time were winner-take-all elections. We have better choices now, choices that will lead to more representative government. I’ll talk about those later, but first, it’s important to understand the inherent defects in our current system.
Redistricting Commission Had to Fail
Why does the fact that we have winner-take-all elections mean that the Redistricting Commission’s hands were tied? There are three basic reasons. One is that, with winner-take-all elections, voters are more or less forced to choose between the “lesser of two evils.” This aspect of winner-take-all elections is often called the “spoiler effect.” Because of the spoiler effect, voters often decide not to vote for the candidate they really like for fear that it will throw the election to someone they don’t like.
Not only does this mean that, for many voters, their vote doesn’t reflect their actual views, but they feel forced in effect to reenforce the dominance of the two corporate parties — when neither of these support what voters across the political spectrum want and need. I won’t go into this in any detail right now, but check out this 2015 poll of likely voters (1). As the poll shows, Republicans in Congress don’t do what Republican voters want and Democrats in Congress don’t do what Democratic voters want. Despite what the corporate media drums into us, the voters all want the same things across a broad range of issues.
The second reason that winner-take-all elections don’t produce representative government is related. It is the fact that voters only get to put a mark by one candidate — when they may like more than one. Again, their vote doesn’t reflect their actual views.
And then their ballot may not count at all! In the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, 400,000 Washington voters voted for candidates who had dropped out of the race by the time the ballots were counted. A quarter of the ballots in that election counted for nothing.
The third reason is gerrymandering. People these days are generally aware of the plague of gerrymandering that corrupts our elections. Mostly, they think of partisan gerrymandering. This is where a party in control of a state legislature draws the boundaries to ensure it will continue to have majorities into the future. This is political corruption of a most fundamental kind. Both of the corporate parties engage in it whenever they can.
Another kind of gerrymandering is what you might call virtuous gerrymandering. This arises when the boundaries are drawn to ensure representation for a group that has been intentionally excluded from political representation in the past. It’s a way of restoring balance, and that is all to the good, but, like all other gerrymandering, it means that the decision is largely taken out of the hands of the voters and put into the hands of the people who draw the lines. I have a hard time thinking of that as representative government.
The real problem is: there is a much more profound kind of gerrymandering than either of these. It is what I call inherent gerrymandering and it occurs in every district in every winner-take-all election. Inherent gerrymandering occurs because, as soon as you draw district lines — and it doesn’t matter how you draw them or what your motivations are — you have enclosed a certain composition of voters. Whatever that composition of voters is will largely predetermine election results for years to come.
The League of Women Voters estimates that, because of gerrymandering, 90 percent of the seats in the federal Congress are in effect reserved for one of the corporate parties or the other. The people whom we elect are immune from having to pay attention to the voters. This immunity is a large part of the reason we get the long list of issues that Congress is not attending to as shown in the 2015 poll. This is a fundamental corruption of representative government.
What makes gerrymandering possible is the fact that most votes in a winner-take-all election are wasted for purposes of producing representation. How can that be, you ask? Well, consider an election where there are 60 votes for the winner and 40 for the loser. It’s pretty clear that the 40 votes don’t produce representation, and, in that strict, mechanical sense are “wasted.” What’s also clear is that the winner only needed 41 votes to win and the 19 extra votes are as effectively useless for producing representation as the 40 votes for the loser. In fact, in any winner-take-all election, a majority of the votes are wasted every time. A majority!
These features of winner-take-all elections made the Redistricting Commission’s work not only difficult, but impossible. The task being impossible, they didn’t succeed in accomplishing it. Let’s look at some numbers.
Preassigned Legislative Districts
As a result of the Redistricting Commission’s work, 35 out of Washington’s 49 legislative districts (71 percent) are preassigned to one of the two corporate parties. The voters are effectively taken out of their decision-making role in the vast majority of legislative districts. (Strange to say, this result is an improvement! In the previous decade, 80 percent of the districts were preassigned!)
In the new districting plan, the Democrats get the lion’s share of the preassigned districts (26 out of the 35, or 74 percent) when they have only 57 percent of the state’s population. Nine of the districts are reserved for Republicans (18 percent of the 49 districts), when Republicans account for about 41 percent of the state’s population.
I say that these districts are “preassigned” not because I’m accusing the Redistricting Commission of intending to set up a bunch of “safe” districts — for either party. But, that is the effect of what they did. Pre-assignments like this are unavoidable when you have winner-take-all elections.
If they had really wanted to put their thumbs on the scale for Democrats, they could have done a much more thorough job. As it turns out, there are six districts in which the Democrats have landslide majorities — more than 70 percent of the likely vote. There’s one, the 43rd legislative district, covering the Fremont District and Madison Park in Seattle, in which the Democrats are likely to have 89 percent of the vote!
Majorities of 55 percent would have made these districts effectively “safe.” The extra 15 percent (or 34 percent) in at least some of these districts could have been parceled out among the 14 districts that are now unassigned — making many of them “safe,” too. The surplus votes could even have been used to reduce the number of reserved Republican districts.
Conversely, the Redistricting Commission could have loaded Democratic voters into even more landslide districts. The result would have been to make Republican majorities “safe” in more districts.
See how winner-take-all elections make this kind of election tampering really easy, and, in fact, pretty much irresistible?
Just to be clear, I generally favor the direction that Democratic policy goes in. I would say that it doesn’t go far enough — on climate, on homelessness, on the upside-down Washington tax structure, just to name a few areas. What I don’t like is that they are getting preference because of the inherent features of winner-take-all elections rather than because of the voters would vote if they were not hemmed in by the election system.
And, part of the point here is that, even if the statewide averages had coincided (Democrats, with 57 percent of the population, would get 57 percent of the representation, and Republicans, with 41 percent of the population, would get 41 percent of the representation), it would still have meant that, in each and every district, the voters for the minority party would have been out of luck. Their “representative” would be out to do things they didn’t want.
Commission’s Mandate: Not Achievable
Among the requirements that state law has for the Redistricting Commission’s work are that the results “provide fair and effective representation and encourage electoral competition.” Another mandate says that lines are not to be drawn “purposely to favor or discriminate against any political party or group.”(2) These are core aims of any legitimate election system.
Winner-take-all elections make these aims unachievable.
Winner-take-all elections discourage candidates from running because of the spoiler effect. Therefore, winner-take-all elections don’t encourage either “fair representation” or “electoral competition.”
Winner-take-all elections discourage voters from voting in accordance with their actual views — again because of the spoiler effect. Therefore, winner-take-all elections don’t encourage “effective representation.”
Winner-take-all elections mean that the people we elect mostly have “safe” seats because of gerrymandering — so they don’t have to pay attention to what we want and need. For this reason also, winner-take-all elections don’t provide for “effective representation.”
Winner-take-all elections inherently favor the corporate political parties because of the spoiler effect and this tendency is reenforced by subsequent gerrymandering. Therefore, redistricting in a winner-take-all system inherently favors one of the corporate parties and discriminates against the other corporate party — and against all other parties.
Without going into the details of how it does this, ranked-choice voting defeats both the spoiler effect and gerrymandering. They can’t arise. It also significantly reduces the number of wasted votes. I’ve written about these benefits of ranked-choice voting several times in Whatcom Watch. If you go to the Whatcom Watch website and search under “Stoney,” you’ll see the articles. You can check out Kristen Eberhard’s excellent articles on ranked-choice voting in Sightline, too. And the FairVote Washington website (www.FairVoteWA.org) is loaded with good materials — written and video.
All that I’ll say is: ranked-choice voting has bipartisan support (and opposition) in our state Legislature. The two bills that were under consideration this year are the Local Options Bill (HB 1156, SB 5584) and the Presidential Primaries Bill (SB 5851, HB 1926). The Local Options Bill would give local jurisdictions the option to adopt ranked-choice voting for themselves. The Presidential Primaries Bill would bring in ranked-choice voting for presidential primaries. Both bills have died this session, but you can still register support for them. Just go to the legislative website at leg.wa.gov, click on “Bill Information,” enter the bill number, and then click on “Comment on this bill.” FairVoteWA is contemplating adding a more comprehensive bill next year covering state executive offices and federal elections to the House and Senate.
And there will be plenty of opportunities for tabling about ranked-choice voting this summer — and giving other support. For one thing, both Clark County and San Juan County have ballot measures this year to bring in ranked-choice voting.
Tabling or phone-banking for ranked-choice voting means talking with folks about something that would actually bring us representative government and that nearly everyone likes once it’s explained to them. Does that get your juices flowing? If you want to join in, email me at WhatcomChapter@FairVoteWA.org. Or just go to the FairVote Washington website (www.FairVoteWA.org) and register your support there and volunteer.
See you at the hustings!
1. Progressive Change Institute – Poll of Likely 2016 Voters –https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.boldprogressives.org/images/Big_Ideas-Polling_PDF-1.pdf. Survey available from the author on request.
2. For a full statement of the Redistricting Commission’s mandate, see RCW 44.05.090.
Stoney Bird is a former corporate lawyer who has been working for the adoption of ranked-choice voting since the sessions of the Whatcom Charter Review Commission in 2015.