Editorial of The Times

Posted November 11, 2018 9:59 p.m. EST

A Congress for Every American

Last Tuesday, Dan Donovan, the Republican congressman from Staten Island, lost his seat to his Democratic opponent, Max Rose. With his defeat, there won’t be a single Republican lawmaker in the nation’s capital speaking for anyone in New York City come January. More than half a million registered Republicans live in the five boroughs, but as far as Congress is concerned, they might as well be invisible.

If that doesn’t spark your outrage, consider the plight of the hundreds of thousands of Arkansas Democrats who can’t elect a representative to Congress, even though they account for more than a third of the state’s voters.

No matter your partisan leanings, examples like these strike at basic notions of political equality and fair representation. Sure, the Senate is designed to be undemocratic, awarding two votes to every state regardless of population. But shouldn’t the House of Representatives — the “People’s House,” after all — reflect the political makeup of the country as accurately as possible?

And yet, across America even sizable communities of minority-party supporters regularly find themselves locked out of power for a simple reason: Single-member congressional districts. Each of the House’s 435 districts is represented by one person, chosen in a winner-take-all election. It may sound wonky, but in our hyperpolarized, geographically clustered and gerrymandered age, single-member districts have become a threat to the health of America’s representative democracy.

Most people don’t question the wisdom of voting for only one member per district, if they think about the matter at all. But there’s nothing special or preordained about it. In fact, the alternative — districts that send multiple members to Congress — was the norm at the nation’s founding. Nine states still use multimember districts to fill at least one state legislative chamber, and four — Arizona, New Jersey, South Dakota and Washington — elect all their state lawmakers this way.

How would it work in practice?

Take a look at Massachusetts, which has nine congressional districts. A little more than one-third of the state’s voters vote Republican, so in a perfectly representative system, three of those seats would be held by Republicans. But Massachusetts hasn’t sent a Republican to Congress since 1994, because Republicans don’t make up a majority in any single district. That’s where multimember districts come in. According to FairVote, a group that advocates for electoral reforms, the optimal number of members in a district is five, but three works, too. So Massachusetts could divide its nine seats into three districts of three members each. (The district lines would need to be redrawn, of course, to comply with the one-person-one-vote requirement, and federal laws like the Voting Rights Act.)

By itself, these new districts wouldn’t solve the problem. Democratic voters would still dominate in every district and prevent any Republicans from being elected. The solution is to elect members through ranked-choice voting, a process in which voters rank listed candidates in order of preference. This sounds complicated in theory, but it works smoothly in practice — ranked-choice voting is used in cities around the country. Maine uses it in all its congressional elections and state primary elections. In multimember districts, each party is allowed to run as many candidates as there are seats, so in the Massachusetts example, voters would get a ballot that included three Democrats, three Republicans, plus a few other candidates from any third parties that were able to field them. Voters would then vote for three candidates, in order of preference.

One more tweak is necessary: Because a successful multimember district is one that fairly represents the different viewpoints in that district, you need to mathematically mandate vote thresholds that will guarantee winners. In a three-member district, each candidate would need to win more than 25 percent to be elected. In a five-member district, the number is more than 17 percent.

Applying this to Massachusetts, and assuming that residents vote in line with past voting, Republicans would be assured of winning one seat in each district, for a total of three of nine congressional seats — roughly the proportion of Republican voters in the state.

That’s what fair representation looks like. By FairVote’s calculations, it’s possible to draw multimember districts in all but the seven states that have only one representative. The remarkable thing is that every district in the country with three or more members would have representatives from both major parties. In other words, America isn’t as politically segregated as most people think; it only looks that way because of our zero-sum, winner-take-all elections and the political maps that reflect them, portraying vast sections of the country as entirely red or blue.

This is the main reason to favor multimember districts: They can help all political groups, especially those in the minority, get represented in rough proportion to their share of the vote. Right now, for example, Republicans enjoy a significant “seat bonus” in Congress, meaning they win more seats than would be expected based on their share of the national vote. But throughout much of the 20th century, the situation was reversed, and Democrats often had an even bigger bonus. The reasons for these bonuses vary, but the point is that the American political landscape is always shifting, and it’s better for everyone if the ground rules are as fair and unbiased as they can be.

Multimember districts offer other important benefits, too. When three or five members of Congress all represent the same district, it’s much harder for politicians to gerrymander themselves and their party into permanent power. And experience from the states shows that more women and minorities get elected in multimember districts.

How easily could all of this be done? For starters, Congress would have to reverse a 1967 law prohibiting multimember districts. That law was passed at a time when there was concern that southern whites were taking advantage of multimember districts to dilute the electoral power of African-Americans, who had just secured the right to vote. But that problem goes away with the ranked-choice voting system described above. Congress could implement all these reforms, too — as in the Fair Representation Act, which was introduced in the House last year.

The result of all this is that the vast majority of voters, whether they live in cities, in suburbs or in rural areas, would have someone in power who represents them. This could help foster bipartisanship and compromise, as members of different parties would need to work together on behalf of their district’s voters. After all, both Democrats and Republicans need the potholes to be fixed.

Add in a larger House of Representatives, as the New York Times editorial page advocated Sunday, and you increase the opportunities for voters to be represented more in line with their numbers in society.

And that’s the whole point. When citizens feel that their voice is being heard by government, they’ll be more eager to participate, more likely to vote and more politically engaged overall. That’s what a democracy should look like — and in the long run, it’s the only way a democracy can survive.

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