What Voters Scream About When They Scream About Health Care Reform

Krist Novoselic's column runs every Tuesday on the Daily Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @KristNovoselic.
Many Americans have a lousy relationship with their democracy. Like that couple who can't stand each other but stick together, it's gotten to the point of constant screaming. Add in our nation's dysfunctional health-care system, and now people are really flipping out.

It was the summer of love last year during the presidential election. Both camps rallied behind their candidate, and like-minded Americans circled the stump cheering on promises and ideas meant to evoke a whoop of approval. The Democrats talked about reforming health care; the Republicans decried socialized medicine.

But that was 2008. Now the issue is before Congress, the 2010 midterm election campaigns have already started, and we've found ourselves in the summer of loathe. People are going to town-hall meetings with their representative in the U.S. House and freaking out about the health-care issue in a series of rude, irresponsible, and downright ugly displays. But where is this hostility toward representatives going to? The presidential election was competitive. Most U.S. House races are not.

The year 2001 settled a lot of elections. First was the effect of the September 11 terrorist strike. Fear and shock created a climate of intense nationalism. The slogan was United We Stand, wrapped in the sentiment you're with us or against us. Republicans floated on the anxiety of the electorate by claiming the mantle of national security. In the 2002 House elections, the GOP won big not only by defeating Democrats--they bucked the trend of the majority party losing seats in the midterms.

2001 was also the time when the states drew the political boundaries for their U.S. House districts. In most districts, they basically settled the election for one party or another. In House races since then, the average margin of victory for incumbents of both parties is around 34%. House races are just not competitive. Of Washington state's nine U.S. House seats, only one was competitive in 2008.

Just like a tattered little flag on an auto antenna or a peeling bumper sticker, the intense nationalism eventually wore off. By 2006, out of 435 races, 22 seats changed hands--enough for Democrats to win the majority in the House.

Like nationalism, the G.O.P. needs some kind of visceral edge again to get them out of the dumps. The town-hall disruptions are about more than just feelings regarding policy; voters don't feel that their concerns are being represented. And the screaming is a manifestation of the structural flaws of our elections.

Sure, there are powerful interests fanning the flames of discontent. They want the majority Democrats' health-care effort to fail only because of political considerations. But there are real people who are frustrated. Republicans stuck inside a Democratic district are expressing themselves. The hollering is ugly, but any candidate that shares these voters' view in that district doesn't really have a chance at winning there. Political demographers and cartographers, using sophisticated technology, settled the election eight years ago.

Elsewhere, Republican incumbents are safe from hollering constituents in districts that are tailored to them.

The whole process is starting all over again in 2011 when they draw the new districts. We'll have elections effectively settled until 2022. We need to start talking about proportional voting and electing representatives from multi-member districts. This way the majority and the minority in a district get a representative in the U.S. House. Article 1, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution gives the Congress the ability to change how House members are elected.

The idea behind electing a representative is just that--representation in a legislative body. But folks are being shut out by design, and judging by the screaming, they're not about to shut up. That is, until they wind up on the winning side of gerrymandering.

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