Periscope: Misdiagnosing the vital signs of democracy
Tragedy results when we don’t measure our democratic health accurately
Imagine you wake up in the middle of the night with severe chest pains, and your spouse calls an ambulance which rushes you to the hospital. You lie there on the gurney, waiting for the medical experts, who finally arrive. What does your doctor do? Does she pull out her stethoscope and listen to the murmurings of your inner parts? Does she check other vital signs, or order blood tests, angiogram, MRI or CAT scan to get a picture of what’s going on inside?
No. Instead she starts examining between your toes, looking at your fingernails, tugging at your hair, and asks you to spit into a jar. She asks what you had to eat, and if you have watched any recent reruns of Seinfeld. Wait, what? Finally she sends you home with that universal prescription indicating medical helplessness: “Drink lots of water.”
If this happened to you, you might suspect that this doctor is guilty of flagrant incompetence and malpractice. Yet when it happens to our democracy – when, election after election, we fail to measure or take account of the right vital signs – we just shrug our collective shoulders and say, “Oh well, better luck next election.” And we drink the prescribed water, or something stronger, as we watch US democracy lying there on the gurney in distress, without any cures being offered from many of our political leaders.
When it comes to assessing the health of any democracy, certain statistical indicators are helpful. Measuring them, and understanding what the data is revealing, is like a doctor reading the vital signs of her patient. Yet for the most part US political scientists and researchers do not keep track of these democratic vital signs on a regular basis, and the media does not report them.
So imagine for a moment that you are a Doctor of Democracy, having been certified by the animating spirits of Kleisthenes, Locke, Wollstonecraft, Tocqueville, Mill, Sojourner Truth, James Farmer and more. You are standing over the patient, US democracy, who is lying there with the oscilloscope beeping and flashing with alarm. What vital signs should you be paying attention to?
* Votes-to-seats index: The votes-to-seats index builds on the theoretical work of political scientist Douglas Rae, and measures what I call the “representation ripoff” -- that is, the extent to which one party wins a greater percentage of seats than votes (over-representation) and the other party wins a smaller percentage of seats than votes (under-representation). It measures how well the intent of voters actually is reflected in the legislature.
During the 2020 elections for the US House of Representative, in Connecticut the Democrats won only 59 percent of the popular votes yet ended up with a whopping 100 percent of the state’s US House seats. In North Carolina, the Republicans lost the two-party vote to Democrats yet ended up with 61.5% of the seats; in Ohio, Republicans won 57% of the two-party vote and walked away with 75% of the seats. These sorts of distortions and disproportionalities occur in U.S. elections all the time, at local, state and national levels. The cumulative effect of the representation ripoff in state after state has real impacts not only on representation but also on policy. In contrast to their international colleagues, most American political scientists don’t bother keeping track of this vital sign, and the media doesn’t usually report it. Not surprisingly, the public is not much aware of it either.
* Orphaned voter index: This vital sign measures the percentage of voters in a state who voted for the winning candidate in an election. Every election, besides many (sometimes most) eligible voters not participating, even fewer voters actually help elect someone. In a Winner Take All system where only one side can win each seat, millions of voters living in the wrong districts and states vote for losers and waste their votes, election after election. These unrepresented Americans are geographic minorities, turned into the lowest caste of democratic citizens -- “orphaned voters.” In states like Texas, New York and Arizona, barely a quarter of voters cast a vote that helped elect someone in the 2020 U.S. House elections. Many orphaned voters pick losing candidates so often that eventually they get the message -- there is no point in participating. So, besides the number of wasted votes, the “orphaned voter” Index also measures the degree of futility of voting.
* Margin of victory index: This is a measure of how much candidates win by, which is a measure of competitiveness. Most US states are ridiculously noncompetitive, with four states – Tennessee, Massachusetts, Alabama and South Dakota – having an average margin of victory in 2020 for all their House contests of 50% or higher (which translates into a victory margin of 75% to 25% or higher). Nationwide, a whopping 65% of the 435 US House seats were won by landslide margins of 20 points or more, or were uncontested; if you add in noncompetitive races decided by 10 to 20 point victory margins, a mind-blowing 83% of races had no competition at all. This is not unusual. Whenever you see a pattern of such lopsided victory margins, election after election, it generally means that so many partisan voters – whether Democrats or Republicans -- reside in that district that we can easily predict who will win, regardless of inequities in campaign spending or other factors. Demography is destiny in these districts, and the sheer number of such districts gives you a measure of how polarized a state or nation’s politics really is.
Another 37 US House seats were won by barely competitive margins of 5 to 10 points. So in 2020 only a handful of 39 races – less than 9% – had truly competitive margins of five points or less. It is a competition wasteland out there, all across the country. State legislative races are even worse, with 27% of the 7383 seats uncontested, including 75% in Massachusetts, 61% in Wyoming, 58% in Rhode Island, 57% in Arkansas and 51% in Georgia.
As a vital sign of our democracy, the level of competition is pretty much a flat line. This measure is doubly important because incumbents and the parties that dominate those districts don’t even have to really campaign, or ask any voters for your vote, or justify their past legislative performances. Not surprisingly, there is a direct correlation between the competitiveness of many races and voter turnout. Generally speaking, the greater the margin of victory (and the less competitive the race), the lower the voter turnout. So where victory margins have flatlined, so too has voter participation. As a Doctor of Democracy, you would have to declare this state of health to be in the red warning zone.
* Voter turnout index: This is about the only vital sign that most researchers and the media track on a regular basis, and that’s a good thing because voter turnout provides a snapshot of how many people felt it was worth their time to participate in this most fundamental democratic ritual. And voter turnout can be tracked over time, which also provides revealing information. We know that turnout in the US is abysmally low compared to other established democracies -- ranked 87th in the world, lower than Ethiopia and Tonga.
But mostly we only track turnout for the higher profile races; finding turnout figures for local, state and non-presidential federal elections is not easy, since they are obscurely published by the Secretaries of State, local election officials, or daily newspapers. Even when they do publish the figures, many election officials typically goof it up, regularly distorting the information by calculating registered voter turnout instead of eligible voter turnout. In other words, they neglect to include those adult citizens eligible to vote but who, for various reasons, have not registered. That’s no more legitimate than keeping track of unemployment without counting those discouraged workers who have given up looking for work. Let’s call these missing ones “discouraged voters.” By using “registered voters” rather than “eligible voters” we artificially increase voter turnout figures by 20 to 30 percent.
So even where we regularly measure turnout, we actually mismeasure it and give a skewed picture. I have asked various election officials, researchers and reporters why they count registered voters, and have heard reasons ranging from ignorance to a conscious attempt to artificially inflate voter turnout numbers.
* Mirror index: How well do our legislatures mirror the face of our population along numerous demographic lines, including race, gender, income, age, religion, trade/occupation and more. In today’s simple-minded, hyper-partisan Winner Take All climate, this vital sign is derisively labeled as “representation by affirmative action bean-counters,” instead of one legitimate indicator among many of the representativeness of our political system. America’s second president John Adams, wrote that a representative assembly “should be an exact portrait, in miniature, of the people at large” and that “it should think, feel, reason and act like them.” The US is 60 percent white and 40 percent racial/ethnic minority, yet the House of Representatives – the “People's House,” as it has been called – is only 74% white and 26% minority, and the Senate is only 11% minority. Women comprise 51% of the nation’s population, yet they hold only 27% of House seats and 24% in the Senate. Both houses of Congress remain a bastion of predominately white male clubs. With the US Census projecting a nation with a non-white majority by 2045, how can it not matter that our legislatures have such a vast representation gap compared to that “exact portrait” of America?
* Primary election distortion index: As we have seen, the vast majority of districts at state and federal levels are lopsided for either Democrats or Republicans, with one party winning easily in the November general election. That means where nearly all legislative elections are decided is in the primary election of the party that dominates that district. In 2020, of the 83% (361) of congressional “safe seat” districts, 42% had no competition in the dominant-party primary (often with incumbents running for re-election), and the other 210 lopsided districts were decided by a handful of the most partisan voters that generally participate in those low-turnout primaries. When you do all the math, it works out to a rather astonishing fact: in the 2020 elections, only 23 million of America’s 235 million voters (10%) effectively elected 83% of House members. This kind of “minority rule” occurs in the House election after election, yet researchers and the media have not been tracking it, much less reporting it as a key vital sign to be monitored.
These are the most crucial vital signs of US democracy that help us to understand the challenges that we face. If they were Doctors of Democracy,” government officials, political scientists and journalists would be calculating these measurements and indicators immediately following every election for federal, state and local races. That would allow each state, and our nation as a whole, to have an ongoing snapshot about the health of our representative democracy.
Unfortunately, FairVote is the only organization that regularly conducts this kind of research, which is released as its bi-annual Dubious Democracy report for U.S. House elections (though it uses different names for some of the above categories). A few other research organizations track one or two of these vital signs of our democracy, the most prominent being the well-known Charlie Cook Political Report which uses a calculation similar to FairVote’s Landslide Index to predict U.S. House races. A few organizations such as Ballotpedia and Richard Winger’s Ballot Access News report the number of uncontested races at the state legislative level, and the National Conference of State Legislators report the gender and racial composition for all state legislatures. UniteAmerica has done some illuminating work to track and analyze the impacts of low turnout primary elections. Professor Michael McDonald’s United States Elections Project is a go-to source on voter turnout figures after each election, as is the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) in Stockholm for tracking international voter turnout. And a number of organizations and researchers track campaign finance equities, which is another important democratic indicator.
But generally speaking, the measurement of these vital signs of our democracy are not tracked to any consistent degree. And there is little research or reporting done for state legislative or local elections. The general lack of awareness of these vital signs is truly a gaping hole in scholarly research, a huge oversight of American political science and journalists, and our understanding of our political system suffers greatly as a result.
Steven Hill @StevenHill1776
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Great post! Bright Line Watch (http://brightlinewatch.org/) is another resource for tracking the health of our democracy.