By John Burbank
Was there an election last week? Well, yes there was, but most people seemed to be more interested in the Blue Angels than participating in our seasonal exercise in democracy.
It’s pretty easy to vote at your own kitchen table, filling in the little ovals with your choices while sipping a cup of coffee, and then putting the ballot in the mail. So why did most people do what my son did, just let the ballot sit on the counter until it was too late? Probably because there has settled on our country a certain sense of dispiritedness, disengagement and dissatisfaction with politics. So why vote?
This question becomes harder to answer when considering the way our legislative districts are designed. We have a redistricting commission. It takes redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature, so that it doesn’t favor one party or the other. But it hasn’t opened up competition. The commission, with two Republicans and two Democrats, draws the district lines that favors incumbents of either party, and cuts up the state in a way that cordons off some districts (mainly east of the mountains) to the Republicans and other districts (mainly in Seattle and its suburbs) to the Democrats. Makes you wonder why bother to vote.
Add to this status quo determination of districts the top-two primary. This system makes it impossible for either Republicans or Democrats to even advance to the general election in some districts. And that means that our choices as voters are further limited. Perhaps that’s why voter turnout was 31 percent of registered voters statewide, and only 25 percent in Snohomish County. Compare that to turnout in a comparable election year, 2010, when turnout was 41 percent statewide and in Snohomish County over a third more people voted than this year. All this adds up to the fact that in over one-third of all the races for state house and state senate there was no Democratic or no Republican candidate in the primary election. Because the top-two primary eliminated two more Republicans and one more Democrat from advancing, all in all over 36 percent of the general election contests will be missing either a Democrat or a Republican.
State Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, has a free ride in the upcoming November election. So do state Reps. Derek Sanford, D-Mountlake Terrace, and Cindy Ryu, D-Shoreline. State Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, has only a Libertarian candidate to worry about.
We could say kudos to these already-elected officials. But it is not as if Democratic or Republican voters don’t exist in these districts with one-party elections. In Rep. Kristiansen’s district, Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney by 1,000 votes. In Mike Sells’ district, Obama beat Romney by 12,000 votes, but Romney still received almost 20,000 votes in that district. So these voters, both Democrats and Republicans, are effectively disenfranchised from voting for candidates who represent their parties and their political beliefs. So much for multi-party voting in a democracy!
What’s interesting is that it does not have to be this way. We could create a new system of elections and districts, ensuring that voters’ choices are proportionately represented in the Legislature. If we were to adopt three-member districts, with the members chosen proportional to the votes for their party, we would have much more fair, and indeed democratic representation. Republicans would get elected in Democratic strongholds like Everett, and Democrats would get elected in Eastern Washington. For example, if Democrats garnered one-third of the vote in an Eastern Washington district, one Democrat and two Republican representatives would be elected.
Keep in mind that being represented isn’t just about a political party but also about race and ethnicity and gender and how these translate into party affiliation. With proportional representation, the majority Latino constituents in Yakima and other eastern state areas would finally get representation. Changing the system could also help recruit candidates reflective of the diversity and strength of our citizens, including people of color and women.
Proportional representation gives voters a reason to mail in their ballots. They would know that their votes would count equally and would result in truly fair and proportional representation in the Legislature. That would be a breath of fresh air for all of us.
John Burbank is the Executive Director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (www.eoionline.org). Email firstname.lastname@example.org