By Steven Hill, DemocracySOS, March 28, 2023
America’s winner-take-all elections bedevil common sense and ensure a vast gap between public opinion and policy
Another shooting. Another SHOOTING? ANOTHER SHOOTING!!!
Another SCHOOL shooting. I can hardly believe it. Three school children are dead, gunned down at nine years of age, along with three of their adult care keepers. While the children were paying attention to their lessons, their eyes peering up at the chalk board into their expectant futures, the 28 year old killer opened fire, armed with two assault-style weapons and a handgun. At a tender age when kids first start playing Little League baseball and learn to multiply fractions, these kids were dodging bullets.
“But you, who, philosophize disgrace, and criticize all fears,
Bury the rag deep in your face, for now is the time for your tears.”
— Bob Dylan
The Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit research group that tracks gun violence, says that as of late March, the archive has counted 130 mass shootings in the United States in 2023. That averages about 52 bullet-riddled episodes per month. What??? That describes a war zone. The regular places that regular people go are no longer safe against deadly eruptions from guns in the hands of deranged maniacs, oftentimes teenagers themselves, packing more firepower than a US Marines combatant.
What is really odd is that Americans strongly support gun control on a bipartisan basis. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that large majorities support background checks (81 percent), an assault-weapons ban (63 percent), and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines (64 percent), any of which might have prevented many of the recent carnages. A majority of Americans also oppose carrying concealed weapons without a permit, which is legally allowed in Texas and other states. Majorities of Republicans who don’t own guns share those opinions, as do Democrats who are gun owners.
So then why does this national nightmare keep happening? Why are our federal and state governments so inept and paralyzed on this issue? How can there be such a radical disconnect between what our elected representatives do and what those they allegedly represent actually want them to do?
The failure of winner-take-all elections
The answer: It’s because of a tragic failure of our political system. — and more specifically, of our winner-take-all political system that has led to a toxic minority rule that rewards passionate swing voters over the will of the majority. What the American people want is secondary to the demands of winning the next election.
Following a previous tragedy, Ronald Brownstein and other political analysts fingered the blatant misuse of the Senate’s filibuster, and more generally the sclerosis of the US Senate, as the main culprit. Certainly requiring 60 out of 100 votes before the Senators can even debate gun control legislation has resulted in paralysis and rendered America’s upper chamber more disreputable than the UK’s House of Lords.
But when the Democrats controlled Congress from January 2021 thru December 2022, even if the Senate had managed to herd the cats in their own unruly caucus and abolish the filibuster, I doubt we would have seen serious gun control legislation like the kind that New Zealand, Australia and Canada passed after mass shootings in their countries. Our winner-take-all political system is simply too broken to foster a consensus on this issue. The incentives of how you win this game are too perverse.
Beyond an over-used filibuster, others blame organizations like the National Rifle Association and its campaign cash and lobbying clout. But we have to look deeper. Truth be told, the NRA’s deep pockets and its political action committee are of secondary importance for explaining its influence.
For decades the nation’s premiere pro-gun lobby, the NRA stoked a highly activist gun culture nationwide (even though recently it has been weakened financially due to alleged corruption and a bankruptcy filing). But the NRA’s real power is also a product of the clunky architecture of our antiquated winner-take-all political system that gives overwhelming influence to a small but critical mass of undecided voters known as “swing voters.”
“Swing voter-ocracy” vs. America’s children
When it comes to guns, the swing voters often are classic Reagan Democrats, including some union members, who fear infringement on their gun ownership rights. Others are Second Amendment zealots, passionate voters for their cause. As former NRA board member Grover Norquist has said, “It is an issue where intensity trumps preference.” Though most voters back gun control, says Norquist, their support doesn’t move them to the polls. “But for that 4-5 percent who care about guns, they will vote on this.”
A 4 to 5 percent swing of voters in a close race can spell the difference between victory or defeat. Recent presidential elections have been settled by close margins in a handful of battleground states, and control in a 50-50 Senate came down to a handful of state races. In the House, only 36 races – barely 8% of the 435 seats – had truly competitive margins of five points or less in 2022, in an election year when the House majority was decided by only five seats. FairVote, a nonprofit advocacy for election reform, published its 2022 Dubious Democracy report showing an overwhelming lack of competition and that the smallest share of the population since 2014 – only 28% — is represented by the most recently elected members of Congress.
So this winner-take-all landscape gives overwhelming power to undecided voters who live in these swing states and districts. The NRA doesn’t have clout because it has lots of money — the NRA has money because it has lots of clout. And it has clout because it influences enough swing voters in key battleground districts and states. It is the geographic basis of the political map that allows the NRA to divide and conquer, and the dynamics of winner-take-all elections that allow gun rights activists to form a potent single-issue voting bloc that far outweigh their minority status. Well-organized minorities like the NRA can hold hostage important policy demands and have influence beyond its numbers, contributing toward distortions in national policy.
The task of the NRA, then—to target their resources to the battleground states and districts like squares on a checkerboard, and try to alarm just enough swing voters there — is rendered much easier by the geographic-based political map of our winner-take-all system. And it is not too hard to figure out where to target: a 2020 Rand Corporation study found that the 20 states with the highest rates of gun ownership elected almost two-thirds of the Senate’s Republican lawmakers and comprised about two-thirds of the states that President Donald Trump carried in the 2020 election. The 20 states with the lowest rates of gun ownership have more than two and a half times as many residents (about 192 million) as the 20 states with the highest gun-ownership rates (about 69 million) but are not nearly as influential.
Thus, the winner-take-all electoral system has resulted in the most polarizing form of “minority rule.” And the prevailing political calculations are intricately connected to the dynamics of winner-take-all’s geographic-based and polarizing two-party structure. In this “swing voter serenade,” small segments of the most uninformed and uninterested part of the electorate, or conversely of the most fanatical parts of the electorate, are bestowed with vastly exaggerated power and able to impact which party wins a majority. They are able to hold hostage any attempt at sane policy, as the middle erodes and legislative bridge-builders disappear.
The impact of swing voters in winner-take-all district races has not only been frustrating and alienating to the public, but the weight of events illustrates that it has been dangerous to the nation’s health. There has been no greater evidence of this than the moving sight of watching family members, friends and loved ones placing flowers on the graves of the innocent victims in Buffalo, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas, Uvalde, Monterey Park…and now Nashville. The list is seemingly endless. Welcome to the toxic, tumultuous world of Winner Take All.
US political scientists and media outlets often portray multiparty democracies elected by proportional representation, such as Israel and Italy, as being beholden to tiny political parties of extremists who hold hostage their coalition governments. Yet they fail to recognize how the dynamics of our own winner-take-all elections allow well-organized political minorities and “swing voter” extremists like the NRA to push their radical agendas on the mainstream.
It’s important to understand how our system works if we ever hope to improve it. Because of the antiquated winner-take-all architecture, the best reform would be to overhaul our political system to get rid of single-seat, winner-take-all districts and transform it to a system founded on the bedrock of proportional ranked choice voting in multi-seat “super districts.”
Steven Hill @StevenHill1776