When a majority of a majority is a minority

A major point of public consternation during the past year was how Congress could pursue President Clinton so doggedly when the public consistently and strongly opposed his removal from office.

With Congress so clearly out of touch with the desires of the nation on a matter as grave as impeachment, it's time we examine how we reached this low point in our politics - how did our democracy produce a majority in the House that was so out of step with public opinion?

One often overlooked suspect is our winner-take-all voting system, where the highest vote-getter wins. Some assume this system, by definition, will lead to majority rule. But the distortion between the public's views of Mr. Clinton and that of the majority in Congress was an example of how our electoral system easily can turn minority opinion into political majorities.

A simple illustration of the problem: Suppose every winner in Congress won with 51 percent of the vote - a majority. When the legislators convene, policy can be made by a simple majority of those elected. But a majority of a majority is not the same as a majority of the whole; in fact, it can be barely a quarter - half of a half.

Polls indicated that a majority of Republican voters supported Clinton's removal. The Republican majority in Congress thus were being true to the majority of their supporters in voting to impeach. Polls also indicated that a healthy minority of Republicans, a strong majority of independents, and nearly all Democrats opposed Clinton's removal. The end result was a majority vote in the House for impeachment that was clearly unreflective of public opinion.

Compounding this paradox is our plummeting voter turnout and our primary system. Turnout for 1998 House races was barely 1 in 3 eligible voters. It was even lower for party primaries; some states had only 10 percent turnout. This tilts the contest toward partisan candidates with a strong but relatively narrow base of support - particularly in multicandidate primaries won by a low percentage of votes. One new House member - Michael Capuano (D) of Massachussetts - won his 1998 primary with only 23 percent.

No matter how few votes they win in the primary, many party nominees have little chance of losing in the general election. Political gerrymandering and natural geographic-based constituencies make most districts "safe" for one party or the other. For instance, Democrats are the majority in most cities and Republicans in the mountain states.

Once established as an incumbent in a safe district, representatives are nearly invulnerable. Primary elections theoretically could be competitive, but more members of Congress have died in office since 1992 than lost in primaries.

These factors combine to allow many representatives to be more partisan and extreme than the majority of their constituents - even than most supporters of their own party. Predictably, "safe-seat" Republicans drove impeachment. They have nothing to fear from any public backlash.

Distortions of majority will are particularly visible whenever an issue polarizes Congress along partisan lines. But it can happen more subtly on a range of issues. Minnesota's Reform Party Gov. Jesse Ventura indeed is right when he proclaims that our system can deny 70 percent of Americans representation of their views.

While all this may seem a bit arcane, it's heartening that at least some of the blame lies with the rules of the game, rather than solely with the players. If we change a few rules, either by legislative action or voter initiative, then the game can be played differently.

The most powerful reform would be adoption of a proportional representation voting system in which the legislature is more likely to reflect a true majority of all voters. With proportional representation, groupings of voters win representation from multi-seat districts in proportion to their voting strength. The majority and various minorities win representation.

Used by most well-established democracies, proportional representation means that nearly every voter will elect a representative, whereas in the United States, millions of citizens vote for losing candidates.

As a result, with proportional representation, winning a majority vote in the legislature is more likely to require a true majority of all voters.

Policy will more closely reflect majoritarian concerns and interests with a proportional system precisely because the legislature represents minority opinion in addition to the majority.

A simpler, if less sweeping, reform would be to mandate that all primary and general elections be won with a majority. Traditionally, this is accomplished with a two-round runoff. But a better way would be to use instant runoff voting, a more modern, cost-saving system of choice voting that simulates a runoff in one election by allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference.

It is time we examine reforming the rules of the game in order to reconnect "We the People" with our elected representatives.

*Rob Richie and Steven Hill are the executive director and West Coast director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. They are the co-authors of 'Reflecting All of Us' (Beacon Press).

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