When 22% equals 100%

I’ve been talking about electoral systems and how they translate voter preferences into representation in my class this semester.  One of the major problems with our plurality system (whoever gets the most votes, wins) is that somebody can win 100% of the representation with well less than a majority of popular support.  Former Republican Congressman Mickey Edwards has a nice essay in the Atlantic about the absurdity of the fact that Ben Quayle will likely represent Arizona as of next year:

It is clearly not a system that works perfectly — many citizens do not vote and a dutiful legislator will not follow even the most ardent wish of his or her constituents if thought to be contrary to the national interest, but by and large the fundamental idea — legislators are the voice of participating citizens — is generally accepted to be true.

It isn’t…

I served in Congress with Dan Quayle and have no quarrel with his son, but I do have a quarrel with a system that allows for the election of members of Congress (or governors or other officeholders) to whom most voters are opposed. Ben Quayle received 22.7 percent of the votes cast in his congressional primary; more than 77 percent of the Republicans who voted in that primary wanted somebody else to be their congressman. Quayle received just over 14,000 votes; more than 48,000 voted for somebody else, despite the fact that Quayle was the best known and most visible of the candidates. Running in a heavily Republican district, he will almost certainly become a member of Congress in January, representing a community that did not want him in that job.

Of course, Arizona voters–even the Republicans– have the option of not voting for Quayle, but barring huge personal scandal, a Republican will pretty much always win a very Republican district.  Thus, the Republican primary really is where all the action is at.  Thus, it is somewhat disconcerting that Arizona’s newest representative (even if it was one of Quayle’s competitors) will basically have one election by only winning 22% of the vote in the most competitive election he’ll face.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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