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Fixing gridlock: A daring proposal to change how we elect members of Congress

Under this proposal, most single-member congressional districts to which we are accustomed would go away.

Under FairVote's plan, most states would be divided into multi-member district (and one big multi-member district in the case of states that have only a few members).
REUTERS/Jason Reed

As you know, Minneapolis voters, in the wide-open and impossible-to-handicap mayoral election a week from Tuesday, will conduct one of the more important experiments in the innovation known as ranked-choice voting. I’ve done what I can to explain how that is supposed to work and outlined some of the arguments for and against RCV.

But I’ve recently learned of a much bigger proposal (of which RCV is only a part) for changing election laws and procedures that promoters believe can help our currently almost-governable nation with its currently embarrassing ideological-partisan-polarization-government-shutdown-no-compromise issues.

It’s a big, daring eye-crossingly complicated proposal (at least I had a hard time grasping its details). But its features do seem to be a significant advancement, compared to the status quo, of several goals, including allowing more people to cast meaningful votes and creating some incentives for both parties to nominate the kind of moderates that seem to be disappearing from the U.S. House and to give more voters an opportunity to vote for candidates that reflect their own political attitudes.

This is going to get ugly, but I’ll try to explain how it would work.

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Under this proposal, the single-member congressional districts to which we are accustomed would go away (except in the seven least-populous states that have only one district). Every other state would be divided into multi-member districts (and one big multi-member district in the case of states that have only a few members).

Unlike the current Minneapolis RCV system, which eliminates the need for a primary, under this bigger plan the members who would represent a multi-member district would be chosen in the traditional two-step process with a partisan primary followed by a general election. But both the primary and the general would be conducted by ranked-choice voting (or a slightly more complicated variant called the single-transferable vote). As a voter, you could rank as many candidates as you want, but in the end, only one of your votes would count.

Please don’t bail on me here. I will try to make it more understandable and give one of its leading proponents a chance to tout its advantages.

This plan has been developed by a national outfit called FairVote (like-minded but not officially connected to the organization that promotes RCV in Minnesota, FairVote Minnesota). My chief guide for this post was FairVote’s Executive Director Rob Richie.

A constitutional aside

Just to clear away one non-existent problem that might have occurred to you. This plan, which FairVote calls “fair-representative voting,” would not require a constitutional amendment with the unimaginably high hurdle of approval by a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states. That’s because the U.S. Constitution does not mandate single-member districts for U.S. House elections.

In fact, multi-member districts were common at other times in U.S. history. But in 1967, in the aftermath of the Voting Rights Act, Congress did enact a statute mandating single-member districts. So for fair-representation voting to occur, that 1967 law would have to be repealed and replaced by a law permitting multi-member districts. Richie’s preference is that such a law not only permit but mandate multi-member districts.

Not to be too pessimistic, but given the current hyper-partisan environment that fair-representation voting is designed to mitigate, it’s a little hard to imagine a change like this being adopted, since both parties would try to figure out whether they would gain or lose by it. When I offered this cynical thought to Richie, he encouraged me to think long-term. He hopes that if the idea becomes known and understood, the majority of the country, which is disgusted with polarization and gridlock, will get behind the reform.

So, in that spirit, leaving aside which party would see advantage or disadvantage, see whether you think this would be an improvement.

How it would work

Every state would be divided into multi-member districts. Mega districts that would elect three to five members of Congress seem to be preferred, as are districts that are not overwhelmingly dominated by one party. FairVote has obligingly drawn a set of districts for every state for illustrative purposes. A map of that exercise is here.

You can click on any state, but as a MinnPost reader, you might want to skip to this map of Minnesota, divided into its current eight districts, then, above the map, click on “FairVote Plan,” which shows a Minnesota divided into just two districts. District B comprises the current congressional districts 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. It  contains most of the Twin Cities metro area, including suburbs, and most of the state’s population. It would have five representatives in Congress.

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Fair Vote planfairvote.orgThe “FairVote Plan,” which shows a Minnesota divided into just two districts.

District A contains the geographically much larger (but less populous) rest of the state, and would elect three members of Congress. According to recent elections, proposed District B would contain about a 54-46 Democratic electorate and District A would be about 52-48 Republican.

So, here’s an example of one of this system’s talking points: Minnesota, which, just based on partisan makeup, has four districts that are considered “safe seats” (the 4th and 5th districts for the Democrats; the 3rd and 6th for the Republicans). Under the proposed new map, both districts would be to some extent “in play” in every election. It mitigates against one of the common themes of what’s-gone-wrong with the House, which is that in safe red (or blue) districts, a candidate only has to worry about losing a primary, which incentivizes him or her to pander to the often relatively extreme party “base.”

The system’s promoters (including Richie) sometimes say that under this scheme, there would be “no safe seats.” That seems an exaggeration. Certain members would be easily reelectable. But at least in the Minnesota illustration, there might be seats “in play” in every district in every election.

Given the new way the votes would be cast and counted, it’s very likely that there will be at least one representative elected from each party in District A and reasonably likely that two Democrats and two Republicans would be elected in District B. The third winner in District A and the fifth winner in District B would likely be a close race.

Cast and counted votes

So what is the new way votes would be cast and counted?

First of all, there would be partisan primaries in both districts. But instead of the current system, where a primary determines the one Democrat and the one Republican who will face off on general Election Day, these primaries would result in multiple nominees from each party, all of whom would be listed on the general election ballot.

As Richie described it, the rules would allow the party to decide how many nominees each party could list on the general ballot. If the Republicans wanted to try to win all three seats in District A, they would have to forward three names to the final ballot. But for tactical reasons, it’s possible they would want to go even higher.

If that makes little sense at first blush, remember this: Both elections will be conducted according to RCV. Suppose four reasonably popular Republicans were running in the district, Tom, Dick, Harry and Mitt. Tom and Dick are the two most popular Republicans in the district and will survive the primary. Harry and Mitt are reasonably close in popularity, but represent different factions within the party. If the party says only three names will be on the general election ballot, and Mitt doesn’t make it, his alienated supporters might stay home on Election Day. But the party certainly has an incentive to want every Republican to turn out. So it might even allow all four on the general election ballot, assuming that under RCV none of their votes will be wasted. If Mitt finishes fourth, he won’t get to Congress, but his supporters’ votes will be transferred to their second preferences, which might increase the number of Republicans that end up winning seats.

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Richie said the question of how many names a party could advance to the general election ballot might be addressed in the legislation establishing the program or it could be entirely left to the parties to decide.

That transferable thing

Are you still with me? The thing has a lot of elements, but it is seeking to address perceived shortcomings in the current system as it has evolved. It seeks to empower each voter to vote for the candidate they really favor most, without having to worry about the “wasted vote” syndrome (the feeling that you shouldn’t “waste” your vote on someone who has little chance of winning). The RCV element addresses that, since if your first-choice candidate is eliminated during the counting, your support can help your second or third choice, as long as any of your choices are still in the running.

But in this weird new world, there’s a new kind of “wasted vote” logic. You might want to vote for someone who is going to win even without your vote. Under the current system, your vote could also be “wasted” in that way. In the proposed “fair representation” system, if your first choice is cast for someone who doesn’t need your vote to get elected, a portion of your support can be transferred to one of your lower-ranked choices for whom it might do some good.

Effective DemocracyThis post is getting so long that I’d better not go any deeper into how these transfers work, but versions of it are actually in use in Australia and other places around the world.

One of the talking points goes something like this: If you are a Democrat and you live in a bright red district (and the same for a Republican in a bright blue), your vote has no effect on anything and you are in some sense not represented by your representative. Under this new plan, almost every voter can cast a meaningful vote, and for most Americans, they will have at least something politically in common with at least one or more of the representatives who technically represents them.

It may cross your mind that if you sympathize with a smaller party than the Democrats and Republicans, this won’t help you, but Richie says it will.

If you live in a three-member district, any candidate that reaches 25 percent of the vote will be guaranteed a seat in Congress. In a five-member district, just 16.7 percent locks you in. (It isn’t obvious, but the math works). Smaller parties can aspire to those numbers, a much lower threshold than winning straight up in a first-past-the-post election for a single seat.

Minnesota example

Minnesota provides, for me at least, an excellent illustration of this fact and several other arguments in favor of the plan because the third biggest party in our state over recent years, the Independence Party, occupies the political center. It has often had statewide candidates (especially gubernatorial candidates) who polled above the 16 percent threshold and even above the 25 level. That result, in a congressional race under this system, would get them into Congress.

If so, being a centrist party, Independence-type officeholders would seem to provide opportunities to create compromises. And most astute observers of Minnesota politics assume that the Independence Party would get even more votes if some of its sympathizers weren’t worried about the wasted-vote problem. Under the RCV system, voters could list an IP candidate first and then express their backup preference for a Democrat or a Republican and still expect to have an impact.

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But when I bounced that Minnesota Independence Party example off of Richie, he took it in a different direction. The Democrats and Republicans in the five-member District B of Minnesota would want to compete to win the seat that would be decided by voters in the middle of the spectrum, so, in addition to wanting some candidates who can fire up the relatively liberal or conservative bases of their parties, they would also want some moderate Democrats and Republicans on the list who could compete with the centrist Independence Party candidate for moderate voters. Either way, he said, the proposed new system increases the likelihood of more centrists in Washington who would not be drawn to the kind of hard-line polarization politics through which we just suffered.

He said the effect of fair-representation voting is to promote “big-tent parties that are wide and fluid enough that they can work with the other party.”

If anyone is still reading to this point, give yourself several Brownie points for good citizenship and open-mindedness to new ideas. And if you’d like to hear the actual proponents arguing for the plan in their own voices, here’s a recent Washington Post op-ed by Richie and one of his colleagues, here’s one from the Huff Post explaining how the recent crisis was fostered by the way we elect congresspeople, and here’s an infographic from FairVote that hits all the high points of the pitch in large type.

Effective Democracy is a year-long series of occasional reports supported by the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, as part of a grant made to MinnPost and theWisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.