Single Winner Rules are for Games, Not Politics

Three sayings capture the public attitude about our politics today: The first is H.L. Mencken’s line that

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”
 
And the next two are bits of bumper sticker wisdom:
 
            “Don’t vote, it only encourages them.
 
            “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.
 
What would it require to persuade people in Oregon stop thinking that politics is just another name for a con game?
 
Perhaps the most important place to start is by recognizing that selecting public officials by using the same basic rules and setup as Mixed-Martial Arts Cage Fighting Championships might have more than a bit to do with why our politics have become so polarized and negative.
 
Oregonians should also be made aware that there is an a long list of democracies that are not only formally democratic on paper, but also practically so, unlike the United States. And these are countries like ours, only with happier, more literate people, people who are better educated, more secure, less depressed, less violent, and much less afraid of their neighbors than we are.
 
The big difference is that their political systems both help to produce and to reflect a much more robust form of “pluralism” than we see here in America. Here, our cage-fight-rules politics has produces such a rock-hard gridlock that, nationally, we see the GOP giving up on the idea of democracy entirely and essentially declaring that a Democratic centrist administration is illegitimate and that the GOP’s mission is to prevent from governing at all, while creating an enormous backlog of federal court judicial vacancies and spreading the poison into the judiciary.
 
It is difficult to recall that there was a time in America when the minority on any question were supposed to be able to feel like “Well, I may not have gotten my way, but at least my position was heard and I gave it my best even though we lost. Now my job is to make the best of things and help things work out best for everyone. I don’t like the outcome, but the process was fair.”
 
That doesn’t occur now. Why not?  Is it because Americans are uniquely toxic and somehow have become a nation of people who think the worst of each other and that each person only takes positions to gain political advantage over opponents?
 
No, Americans are not uniquely toxic. But the winner-take-all rules of American politics are uniquely good at accentuating the worst in the American people. In other words, this is a case where we really can and should blame “the system” rather than the flaws of individuals. Because we are no worse as individuals than we have ever been; but our electoral rules are also no better than they were in 1793, when we faced a vastly different set of problems.  
 
Modern neuroscience confirms what social scientists have long thought: as humans, our reasoning tends to follow our feelings, rather than the other way around as political idealists would suggest. But our election methods, virtually unchanged since 17th Century Britain, elicit certain kinds of feelings – the kinds seen at a cockfights and cage fighting championships – so it’s no surprise that our politics reflect the cockfight-to-the-death mentality.
 
The first mistake we make is that we use geographic districts to decide who can sit as a representative of others, as if the most important aspect of a person needing expression in the halls of power is that a zip code. Under our rules, we say that the only thing that matters is the place where a citizen lays their head at night, rather than whether they had anything to eat that day, work that year, or faced barriers because of the color of their skin. 
 
And the usual practice with district-based are inherent in single winner elections. If you use an antiquated voting technology that was capable of handling the original paperless ballots – a handful of wealthy white men voting out loud in groups – you can only get from it what that technology is capable of producing.  And that’s a simple yes-no result, one winner, who wins it all, leaving no representation for the others.
 
Thus, in Oregon, we start with the premise that we must divide up the state into geographic districts, and have each district elect one person. This is the metaphorical DNA of our toxic politics, and that DNA inevitably expresses itself in our national body politic just as DNA expresses itself in the shape of every living organism.
 
Luckily, there’s a better way. We can have a better result by using larger, multiple-winner districts, or even let everyone vote for all the representatives at once, and then awarding seats to winners in proportion to the share of the vote received. Hence the term, “proportional representation,” or PR.
 
PR lets people form fluid political coalitions that can be but need not only be based on geography. Indeed, the virtue of PR is that it allows citizens to band together because of shared views on traits other than a common zip code. As a state with very polarized politics, Oregonians can easily understand that just living near someone doesn’t necessarily mean you share many values with them.
           
The issue is this:  Politicians don’t go into office to become neutral advocates and to present both sides of a question. No one goes to Congress or their state legislature and says “Gee, many people in my district feel this way, and many feel that way and there are good arguments for both sides and here’s what I think, but I’m going to vote against what I think because I’m in the minority in my district.”
 
That has long been an issue at the heart or a question at the heart of democratic theory: are representatives supposed to vote the way that the district majority wants or should representatives feel free to reject the wisdom of the people who elected the representative?
 
Our method of holding many parallel winner-take-all elections, one per district, also explain why we have the most toxic and the most expensive elections: in each district, the winner takes all dynamic drives up the costs because there is no logical endpoint to spending by the two contending factions when control of the state’s entire legislative agenda can ride on one individual race in a balanced district (almost nothing gets spent in “safe” districts, where the gerrymandering has produced a comfortable majority for one party or the other).
 
This motivation to unlimited spending is fueled by the zero sum nature of winner-take-all. Because there is no second place in a single-winner district, anything that helps candidate A comes at the expense of candidate B and vice versa. Therefore, no matter how much has already been spent, there is no logical limit to future spending before election day, because only the winner gets any reward.
 
The solution is to realize that we’re asking the wrong thing of our politicians.

Basically, we should stop asking politicians to “represent” people whose views they staunchly oppose. That means the views of the voters in the district who did not vote for the winner. That is usually the minority of voters, but it can even be the majority: When more than two candidates vie for a seat in a single-member district, voters may divide enough among more than two candidates that the “winner” only obtains a plurality instead of a majority of voter support.
Instead of asking politicians to “represent” views they oppose, Oregon should instead ask them simply to do their best to represent the views they actually do hold, while electing multiple winners from enlarged districts, so that people who hold other views can also win representation too, even if they aren’t in the majority.
 
The contradiction caused by single-member districts is in large part why Oregon politics is so toxic: there is an irreconcilable conflict between choosing a single person to represent all the voters in a geographic area and the idea of representation for all.
 
Today, with technology, the tools are widely available to allow parties to carefully sculpt legislative bodies out of single member districts in such a way as to maximize the power of the group drawing the district lines and to minimize or even, in practical terms, to eliminate any chance that the voters could rebel and choose for themselves. It is possible today, with ordinary home computers to slice and dice the electorate into discrete packages, block by block, and to know exactly which positions are likely to gain support. 
 
Thus, we now live in a state of unrepresented people who are supposedly living in a representative democracy. In the small “Blue” area of metropolitan Portland, where Democrats hold the overwhelming electoral advantage, anyone with a view outside the Democratic party is completely unrepresented and has zero chance of winning any representation in the Oregon Legislature or in Congress for their views. Similarly in the vast “Red” spaces that make up most of Oregon by acreage, Democrats and others have exactly zero chance of having any representation for their views. In both cases, the minority voters are only nominally participants in the system. The have essentially the same power to affect the outcome of an election as does an anti-Putin voter in today’s Russia.
 
As theory predicts, election systems built on districts with single winners are inevitably dominated by only two parties. The two factions in a two-party system pivot around the balance point, the number of votes where just one more vote decides the election for one side or the other. Since we elect from single-member districts, in each one only one party can win. Thus, Oregonians live almost entirely in one-party districts where they have no voting power. In eastern Oregon, anyone outside the GOP has zero chance of having a vote help elect anyone to represent them; likewise, a GOP voter in Portland has more of a gravitational pull on the orbit of the moon than on the views of their “representatives,” who are all uniformly Democratic Party members.
 
This systematic disenfranchisement is why no country making the transition to democracy since WWII has adopted any part of American election methods.
 
Consider South Africa: a tortured country with a vast black majority oppressed by a tiny white minority through terror and killing, but miraculously led to a peaceful revolution and a peaceful takeover by the majority black peoples. If South Africa had adopted a winner-take-all system like Oregon’s for elections, there would have been a bloodbath with a black takeover and slaughter or exile of the tiny white minority inheritors of the stolen wealth of the people. Although South African struggles continue, with crushing poverty widespread, it is generally a peaceful place and power is shared in a pluralistic society. South Africa wisely chose to avoid the single winner system and the single member district system. They recognized that, while majority rule is the essence of democracy, they also knew that peace meant making sure that minorities could be present and be heard in the Parliament, even without the power to win a majority of seats.
 
This idea can be called proportional representation, but it may be more correct to call it full representation, because it produces a much fuller kind of representation, with the majority winning the majority of seats, but allowing for significant minority groups to win some seats. The proportional representation name is troublesome, because it is a very abstract term that suggests it requires voters to do math or proportions or ratios. But full representation is not complicated in practice. It is simply based on an alternative ideal to the winner take all premise, one that avoids the contradiction at its heart (representation of opposing views by one individual). The idea of full representation election methods is that all voters matter and should be entitled to a voice, and that elections where the partisan winners are a foregone conclusion simply because of gerrymandering are shams.

In Oregon, instituting full representation elections would be quite simple for, say, the state house: with 60 members, instead of 60 separate, winner-take-all races, there would be 12 5-member districts. With that setup, any candidate with at least 17% of the vote would win one of the five seats in that district.