The 2006 Mid-term Elections: Change or Continuity?

December 4, 2006
Patrick Barrett

Liberty Tree Foundation for the Democratic Revolution

In the run-up to this year's mid-term elections, one might reasonably have expected that something akin to a political revolution was in the offing. Indeed, public opinion polls indicated a massive level of discontent with the status quo, evidenced by the public’s very low assessment of President Bush and their even lower approval of Congress, which was at an almost historic low (16% in an October NBC-Wall Street Journal poll). The results of the election, moreover, would appear to have borne out this discontent. Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives, the Senate, and a majority of governorships. Reflecting on these results on election night, Senator Charles Schumer, Chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, made a bold claim: “the message of this election comes down to one word: change.”

But how significant is this change? Have the results confirmed that a major realignment has occurred, and that momentous change is in on the way? And, perhaps even more fundamentally, is this election a demonstration of the power of voters, and a clear reflection of their true concerns and aspirations? Or is it more correctly viewed as an illustration of how the electoral system successfully limits the aspirations and power of voters and stifles and deflects their desires for change? For all the talk of realignment and a new direction, the latter may actually be a more accurate assessment of last Tuesday’s results. Indeed, the bigger message of this election may turn out to be the degree to which our political system – and our electoral system in particular – limits change.

Most obviously perhaps, the results do not match the expectations. Given the extraordinary level of discontent and the widespread “throw-the-bumbs-out” mood prevailing among voters, one should have expected a far greater percentage of incumbents to lose office. In fact, the change in party fortunes is smaller than in previous realignments, including the 54 seat swing that took place in the 1994 mid-term elections, which was nearly twice that produced this year. Moreover, despite the frenetic campaigning and intense media coverage of hotly contested races, only about 10-15% of races were in fact competitive, while approximately 94% of incumbents were reelected, the vast majority of them by massive margins. Although this represents a decline from the 99% incumbent re-election rate witnessed in recent congressional elections, the overwhelming trend remains one of continuity rather than change. Indeed, at the district level, the dominant characteristic of the American political landscape continues to be the prevalence of de facto single party rule.

Do these results therefore imply that Americans are in fact largely satisfied with the direction the country is taking after all? The answer is a resounding no. While it remains to be seen whether congressional Democrats will produce a coherent program of change, it is clear that last Tuesday’s congressional elections constituted a rejection of the status quo. The problem, however, is that the real intensity of that rejection was significantly muffled. The explanation for this lies primarily in the limited choices available to voters, which are themselves the product of the institutional features of US elections. Most significantly, these include a campaign finance system that has restricted the electoral field and made candidates and elected officials beholden to private big money interests; corporate-dominated media and corporate-financed debates that have constricted the political discourse to a narrow range of candidates and policy options; the abuse of incumbency and partisan gerrymandering that have transformed most electoral districts into uncompetitive and often uncontested single-party strongholds; and winner-take-all election rules and highly restrictive ballot access laws that have severely limited the power of voters by systematically excluding alternative candidates, parties, and policy positions. The result is a highly uncompetitive and undemocratic electoral system that has served to concentrate power in the hands of entrenched and unaccountable political, social, and economic elites.

If voters had had the opportunity last Tuesday to participate in truly competitive elections, with a variety of choices that represented their real aspirations and concerns, the degree of change would have been far greater. Instead, because of the prevailing electoral rules of the game, that change was significantly muted. For without competitive elections with multiple choices, voters are not only denied the opportunity to elect people who genuinely represent their interests and aspirations; they also lose the leverage needed to hold candidates and elected officials accountable.

In the face of these problems, then, Americans are confronted with a dual challenge: to reaffirm and protect the universal right to vote for which our predecessors fought and died; and to build on their
accomplishments by fighting for reforms that expand voter choice, heighten electoral competition, strengthen the voice of marginalized groups, and thus increase the political power of voters. In response to this challenge, growing numbers of Americans are mobilizing and organizing on a broad and diverse front to protect and democratize elections in the United States, advancing such pragmatic and long overdue reforms as instant runoff or ranked-choice voting, public financing of elections, proportional representation, equal access to the ballot, tamper-proof voting machines, non-partisan election administration and debates, free access to commercial media, and others.

These reforms, moreover, are very realistic. In fact, one of the most encouraging developments of Tuesday’s elections was the success of instant-runoff voting (IRV) initiatives. IRV won by 68%-32% in Oakland, California, 65%-35% in Minneapolis, Minnesota, 54%-46% in Davis, California, and 53%-47% in Pierce County, Washington. These results are very significant. The victories in the three biggest localities (Oakland, Minneapolis and Pierce) eliminate low turnout primaries skewed to whiter, wealthier, and older electorates and substitute ranked-choice voting for winner-take-all in one big turnout election in November. Moreover, they build on the momentum established by previous IRV victories, beginning with the ground-breaking win in March 2002 in San Francisco, as well as the establishment of public financing laws and independent districting commissions in several states.

A “new generation” voting rights movement has thus begun to emerge. However, if this emerging movement is to build on the accomplishments of the earlier voting rights, civil rights and racial justice movements, it will need to forge alliances with people and organizations engaged in day-to-day struggles in their communities. It will also need to coalesce into a more unified political force, and design a coherent political strategy capable not only of beating back the threats to hard-won historical gains, but also creating the political openings and generating the political capacity necessary for a sustained process of democratic transformation. In this fight, it is important to remember that the reason voting matters is its potential connection to political power and social change. Such a connection does not exist on its own. In part, it depends on who is organized politically. But it also depends on how the electoral system is designed. Despite all of its limitations, Tuesday’s election presents an opening. Our task is to take advantage of that opening to push for a more democratic electoral system that will enhance the power of voters and increase their capacity to bring about real change. Without it, we run the risk of seeing the act of voting become increasingly futile and discouraging, and the possibilities for change even more limited.