Steven Hill

Lessons for Political Reformers

Recently I gave one of the keynote speeches at the annual convention of the Arizona League of Women Voters. Spearheaded by the League, Arizona has led the nation in political reform, passing voter initiatives that enacted two of the most talked-about reforms: public financing/Clean Money for state elections, and a nonpartisan independent redistricting commission. The passing of these reforms in 1998 and 2000 created a lot of excitement and hope, not only in Arizona but across the nation. Arizona was seen as a beacon of reform.

Yet rather than finding a roomful of reformers basking in their victories, I found the League of Women Voters, as well as other Arizona reformers, pretty glum about their efforts. Apparently the electoral results since enacting their reforms have not fulfilled their own expectations, nor matched the campaign hype that sold the reforms to voters.

The results for state and federal races in Arizona certainly have been disappointing. In fact, Arizona has some of the least competitive races in the nation. All eight Congressional incumbents won reelection last year with huge landslide margins, an average of 34%. In the state Senate, none of the 30 seats were competitive, and more than half of the seats were uncontested by one of the two major parties. In the state House, which uses two-seat districts, half the races were uncontested by a major party and only five out of 60 races were competitive. And 97% of incumbents won reelection, whether they had publicly financed or privately financed races.

But there have been some positives in Arizona too, such as an increase in the number of candidates running in the primaries and in statewide executive offices, which has fostered more political debate. And 10 of 11 statewide officeholders ran "clean," including current Gov. Janet Napolitano. But on the other hand the legislature has turned increasingly right-wing, and so there has been no noticeable impact on legislative policy.

So after all their hard work, with results like that it's not surprising the Arizona reformers expressed disappointment. Ever an optimist, I told them to take heart, it's not that public financing and independent redistricting commissions aren't good reforms, it's just that they are more limited in their impact than most people realize, or that reformers, caught up in their zeal, are willing to admit.

Here's what's going on in Arizona, as in many states, that makes public financing and redistricting commissions less potent: They have reached the limits of what can be accomplished within the confines of their antiquated winner-take-all electoral system.

Under winner-take-all, we elect one seat at a time. The candidate with the most votes wins, and everyone else loses. We've used that system for a long time, but over the past 15 years something unusual has been occurring in Arizona and many other states. Regional partisan demographics have been aligning in such a way that certain parts of many states have become solidly Democratic blue or Republican red. Legislative seats that previously had been up for grabs have become one-party fiefdoms resulting from this regional balkanization. And there's little that either redistricting commissions or publicly financed elections can do to counter that.

In Arizona, liberal voters and Democrats are more numerous in the southern part of the state around Tucson, while conservative voters and Republicans dominate the rest of the state, including Phoenix. The only way to make winner-take-all districts more competitive would be to carve narrow bands that extend vertically from south to the north, like the teeth of a comb. But such districts would look ridiculous, and would completely undermine the ability of like-minded voters, especially racial minorities, to elect representatives, therefore ending up in court.

These regional partisan demographics are also responsible for electing fewer moderate legislators and more extremists in Arizona. With so many districts locked up as Republican, if a right-wing candidate wins the Republican primary that candidate is guaranteed to win the general election. And in a primary with multiple candidates, the right-winger can win with a low percentage of the vote by mobilizing their core of rabid supporters.

In short, Arizona (like other states) finds itself in a new paradigm where the problem is not who draws the legislative lines or whether one candidate greatly outspends the other. The problem is balkanized partisan demographics combined with electing legislators via a districted electoral map. Arizona's use of a winner-take-all electoral system has reached its endgame. New approaches are needed.

I told the Arizona reformers that their work was not in vain, it's just that their work was not yet finished. "It is time to take the next step," I told them.

That next step is to get rid of their winner-take-all system and start using an electoral method used in places like Peoria, Ill., Amarillo, Texas, Cambridge, Mass., Hartford, Conn., and dozens of other local jurisdictions. This method employs multi-seat districts in such a way that greatly increases competition and makes public financing of candidates more effective.

For example, instead of electing 30 state senators from 30 individual districts, Arizona voters in six districts could elect five senators each. With a "Peoria-type" electoral method, any candidate who won at least a sixth of the vote would earn one of these five seats. These five-seat districts would be far more likely to be bipartisan, even electing some Republicans in liberal areas and Democrats in conservative areas. Moderates, independents and occasionally even a third-party candidate would win their fair share of seats as well.

Arizona reformers have a chance to complete the valuable work they began and continue to lead the nation. Reformers across the country should recognize that publicly financed elections and redistricting commissions are valuable but insufficient reforms. If we want to restore American democracy, it is necessary to get rid of our antiquated winner-take-all system.

Steven Hill is an Irvine Senior Fellow with the New America Foundation and author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics (

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