Posted on March 12, 2001 in Washington Watch

It feels like the 2000 elections have just ended and already Republicans and Democrats are engaged in battles on several electoral fronts.

Of immediate concern are the 2001 elections that include two hotly contested gubernatorial contests and mayoral races in 462 U.S. cities.

New Jersey and Virginia are the states with open races for governor. Both states are currently headed by Republican Administrations, but Democrats will field popular and well-funded candidates in each contest. These races and the big city mayoral elections will be hard fought and closely watched since their outcome will determine which party has momentum going into the 2002 congressional elections. Democrats are feeling quite good about their chances this year, having won the large majority of governors’ races that were contested in 2000 and having won enough House and Senate seats to come quite close to retaking control of both bodies of Congress. They will, therefore, be focusing resources and energy on these 2001 elections to lay the groundwork for 2002.

Before, however, either party gets a chance to develop their plans as to how they will compete next year for control of the Congress, they must first finish, this year, the complicated but important business of what is called reapportionment.

The U.S. Congress consists of 435 members elected in separate districts divided among the 50 states. A state’s population determines the number of members in Congress it receives. Because the United States population changes over time, the U.S. Constitution requires that a census be taken every 10 years in order to reapportion the existing congressional seats among the states based on their new populations.

As a result of the 2000 Census, 17 states will either gain or lose members of Congress. The net shift is small in absolute numbers. Eight states will gain one or two seats while nine states will lose one or two seats. The shift is only 12 seats in total. But the loss or addition of even one congressional seat can be traumatic for a state because it requires a redrawing of much of the state’s congressional map. And so the battle, on the state level, becomes quite intense as each party seeks to insure that its existing members of Congress are kept in secure districts with a majority of voters registered in their party. They will also seek to gain some advantage from the new maps that are to be drawn.

Since Republicans only hold a nine seat advantage in Congress, a shift in only five congressional elections can change control of the House of Representatives. And since tradition holds that the party that controls the White House usually loses seats in Congress, Republicans will attempt not only to protect their existing members of Congress, but work to insure that reapportionment eliminates some Democratic seats and adds new congressional districts that will be easy for Republicans to win. Given the rules of the reapportionment game, it is possible that Republicans could give themselves an additional five seat advantage, making a Democratic takeover still possible, but a bit more difficult.

A final area of concern that is occupying many of the state legislatures this year after the 2000 presidential debacle is the matter of election reform. Already 32 state legislatures have proposed a wide variety of bills to correct one or more of the problems that occurred in 2000.

Several states have proposed legislation to fund the purchase of new voting equipment that would replace the antiquated voting machines that caused Florida’s 2000 counting problems. Florida is, of course, taking the lead here, since its problems were so scrutinized last year. That state’s officials are proposing to spend $200 million to purchase new equipment and achieve a statewide standard voting system.

Several states have addressed the controversial question of the Electoral College system of choosing the U.S. president. But as if to give evidence to the problems, four states have resolutions before their legislatures in support of the Electoral College, three states propose to eliminate the system, while eight other states are proposing ways to modify it.

In other areas, there is also disagreement. A proposed New York law would extend voting to three days, while a Louisiana law would shorten the time for voting. Meanwhile, legislation in Missouri, if passed, would move voting to the weekend.

Obviously much of what is being proposed will never pass and most of the problems being debated on the individual state level can only be resolved on the federal level. And here there is action, as well. Congress is conducting hearings and has formed two competing partisan committees to evaluate the 2000 elections and make recommendations for a new national election system.

If the picture were not already confusing enough, add to that the struggle that will soon be waged to pass new campaign finance reform legislation. Senator John McCain, who almost upset George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, is determined to correct the way Americans finance elections. Convinced that too much money from special interest groups has polluted politics and stymied efforts at reform, McCain has become a relentless crusader for change.

Republicans are wary of McCain’s efforts and fearful that, if passed, his reforms will reduce their financial advantage in elections. Nevertheless they are seeking an accommodation because they do not want to appear to be opposed to what can become a very popular movement. Until now, proposed compromises have been rejected because they either diminish the effectiveness of McCain’s plan or they would doom it to defeat by making changes that Democrats, whose numbers are needed for its passage, cannot support.

A cynic, however, might suggest that little may come of most of these efforts at election or finance reform. The two parties can not seem to agree on the sources of the problems, let alone find a solution. And so it appears that aside from the electoral battle of 2001, the internal struggles over reapportionment and the preparation for the decisive contests of 2002, little may happen to reform a deeply flawed and highly partisan political system.

What is, of course, of additional interest here, is that this entire drama unfolds as George W. Bush is just beginning his presidency. Having lost the popular vote he lacks a clear and convincing mandate to make the changes he has proposed to Congress. Congress will, therefore, be evaluating the new President’s budget and tax cut programs not only on their merits, but also with an eye on the 2002 elections, and even the 2004 presidential election.

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