Why no gun control? Because of the failure of winner-take-all elections

By Steven Hill, DemocracySOS, May 26, 2022

“Swing voter-ocracy” is contributing to this tragedy for America’s children

FairVote’s Rob Richie and I first wrote about the role of swing voters blocking popular gun control legislation in the 1990s. The problem remains true today.

We have seen this movie too many times. It’s a horror flick that one cannot exit, where the hockey-masked assailant keeps rising again and again.

Americans have been jolted by yet more episodes of gun-crazed carnage, at yet another school, and before that in a grocery store. So far in 2022, there have been 24 school shootings, and last year there were at least 42 acts of gun violence committed on K-12 campuses. The US has experienced at least 132 school shootings since 2018. The regular places that regular people go are no longer safe against deadly eruptions from guns in the youthful hands of teenagers packing firepower on a par with a US Marines soldier.

This scandalous reality is in stark contrast to many other developed nations, where such gun violence is rare, or even nonexistent. World leaders have reacted with utter shock; bizarrely China, an authoritarian dictatorship, is sanctimoniously lecturing the US to “deeply reflect upon why it has become a country with the most serious gun violence in the world” and with “no substantive measures…by the US government to tackle these problems.” 

Sadly, China is right. But what is really odd here is that Americans 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 the carnage in Uvalde. 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? How can there be such a radical disconnect between our elected representatives and those they purport to represent?

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 overs over the will of the majority. What the American people want is secondary to the demands of winning the next election.

In the aftermath of this latest tragedy, Ronald Brownstein and other political analysts have fingered the blatant misuse of the 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 the upper chamber more disreputable than the UK’s House of Lords.

But even if the Democrats managed to herd the cats in its own unruly caucus and abolish the filibuster, I doubt we would see serious gun control legislation like the kind that New Zealand, Australia and Canada passed after mass shootings in their countries.

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 continues to stoke a highly activist gun culture nationwide even though recently it was 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.”

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 39 races – less than 9% of the 435 seats – had truly competitive margins of five points or less in 2020. 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 clout. And it has clout because it has enough swing votes 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 control opponents 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).

These kinds of 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 close 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 was 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…and now Uvalde. The list is seemingly endless. Welcome to the toxic 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 districts.

Steven Hill, @StevenHill1776

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