This coverage is made possible by a grant from The Joyce Foundation.

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

REUTERS/Jason Reed
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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (32)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/28/2013 - 11:06 am.

    kind of mess

    Kind of a mess isn’t it? It seems to me that this is a highly indirect, highly gamed way to reach a system of proportional representation, that is, when seats are allocated on the basis of popular vote received. You get 20 percent of the vote, you get 20 percent of the seats. While I don’t think myself a vote for a losing candidate is “wasted” for folks who think that voting for a candidate who isn’t likely to get a majority or plurality, proportional representation addresses that issue. Many parliaments have proportional representation; it seems to work in terms of delivering a legislative body to the the capitol but it has other problems with respect to governance. As all voting systems do.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/28/2013 - 11:12 am.

    Compromises

    One thing our system of government is really splendid at is creating the need indeed the necessity for compromise. The problem comes when the participants don’t want to compromise, which is the situation we have now. We shouldn’t at all assume that a need to compromise will carry with it a willingness to compromise.

    The British government goes in the other direction. They avoid gridlock by eliminating the necessity to compromise. There, the governing party gets to govern, a revolutionary concept our founding fathers viewed with suspicion even hostility.

  3. Submitted by John Ferman on 10/28/2013 - 11:37 am.

    City Folks Would Be Losers

    Given the population distribution in districts 2 thru 6 Minneapolis folks would lose their congressperson and maybe St Paul theirs.

    • Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 10/30/2013 - 03:45 pm.

      I’ve scratched my head about what you’ve written here…

      And I’ve read it several times. I still can’t figure out how FairVote’s proposals would cheat the residents of any city.

      Besides, our Congressional delegates aren’t supposed to represent pieces of land. They’re supposed to represent people. I don’t believe Minneapolis and Saint Paul needs to have their own Representatives. I believe the people who live there do. But so do the people who live in the surrounding suburbs, and so do the people who live in Duluth and in smaller towns throughout the rest of Greater Minnesota.

      I would like all people to be represented equally, regardless of where they live, and I am convinced that the proportional electoral system proposed by FairVote will accomplish this far better than the district-representation system that we have now.

  4. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 10/28/2013 - 12:12 pm.

    fair vote plan

    I think it is very much worth pursuing. It will take a long time to get anywhere near implementing it, but it looks to me as if it would be much fairer and prevent an extreme node of voters controlling certain seats. The division suggested by this plan would make it hard for politicians to appeal to a narrow group. This is the source of the problem now.
    I would like to hear more about this and would like to see a great deal more and more widespread discussion. Sometimes things that sound impossible are more doable than we think.

  5. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/28/2013 - 12:35 pm.

    Fairvote is to fair voting what “Fair and balanced” Fox News is to fair news reporting. They have consistently repeated the false claim that RCV guarantees majority winners, and following the St.Paul referrendum in RCV, they were cited and fined for deliberately misleading voters.

    Its bad enough that Minneapolis and St. Paul are stuck with RCV for a few elections until people figure out they got sold a bill of goods and repeal it like other cities have done. No one wants this kind of disaster.

    Eric, if you are really interested in election reform, you should follow what has been done in California and stop listening to “Fair”vote.

  6. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/28/2013 - 12:45 pm.

    The erroneous assumption here

    is that gridlock is a bad thing. The reason we’re $17 trillion in debt is because we’ve had a long history of politicians of both parties agreeing with each other too much.

    Gridlock is a good thing. The Founding Fathers tried to make it difficult to pass new laws for a reason. Your congressional representative should be someone who’s there to ensure that the federal government doesn’t violate your constitutional rights by enacting misguided laws that would do that.

    That takes representatives who stand on principle and are willing to oppose laws, not politicians who agree to vote together to the detriment of the republic. I would be very skeptical of anyone in power who thinks otherwise.

    Someone once said that democracy is like two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner. Let’s not worry about changing a system to make it easier to create a majority.

    • Submitted by Kathy Speed on 10/29/2013 - 12:44 am.

      governing or gridlock?

      I agree with you that our system of enacting laws is intentionally set up to make it a deliberative process. The laws that are considered a detriment to the republic is in the eye of the beholder/voter. I suspect that you and I would have very different views as to what would be considered detrimental. The thrust of this article was to open discussion on how to make your elected representative more aligned with the interests of those they represent in a district – tempering the extremes on both sides of the political spectrum. Your congressional representative is not the deciding voice on what is constitutional or not, that responsibility resides in the third branch of government – judicial. Once we elect our representatives, regardless of which party….I want them to govern and accomplish the work we sent them to do. Under a democratic process the majority vote advances that work. If you are advocating stalemate instead of principled compromise, then I submit that needlessly hurts your community….e.g., no farm bill passed and rural Minnesota is being hurt by the Republican refusal to actually govern.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/29/2013 - 08:05 am.

        Congress has an obligation

        to only consider laws that they know will pass constitutional muster. The SCOTUS is only one branch of government and it only takes cases that are brought to it. The citizens shouldn’t have to live under any unconstitutional laws for a day, much less the years it could take to be brought before the Court.

        And it’s not the role of government to subsidize private enterprise. And that includes privately-held farms. So holding up the farm bill is a good thing.

  7. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 10/28/2013 - 12:48 pm.

    Why this will never become law

    First, the party organizations will be against it, both of them, because it will take an egg-beater to the dominance of their duopoly. Why would they mess with a system that guarantees them half of the pie ? Open the door to all kinds of “lesser” parties and candidates ? I think not.

    Second, the big money donors and their lobbyists, who currently buy influence from the duopoly in order to get bills – written by their own hand – which grant them all kinds of special benefits available to nobody else, made into the law of the land. There is no ROI anywhere in this world like the return on money spent acquiring political influence. A few millions or tens of millions of dollars can get you tens of billions in benefit. Why would these parties screw with a system which to them is like the goose that laid the golden egg ?

    Have you noticed that many times, centers of capital give to BOTH parties, and BOTH candidates in a race ? They are voting for the influence of their money. They don’t want to buy influence with 5 or 10 candidates for every office in the land !!

    Third, if and when this thing should ever be brought to a vote in the House or Senate, the individual candidates who are in secure seats will be asked to vote against themselves. There is no indication they have ever, or ever will do so. Then add to these votes against, the votes of those who are in any kind of close competition for re-election, and ask the question: why would they mess with a system in which their whole campaign organization is successful ? Why cast a huge doubt on your re-election through a new system which will work in ways your campaign can’t even imagine ?

    In sum, all the significant parties, including the very officeholders under the current system, will be amused by this idea, but not for long.

    It’s fun to spitball a thing like this, Eric, but no danger of it becoming law.

  8. Submitted by Cathy McMahon on 10/28/2013 - 12:59 pm.

    Constituent Service

    I wonder what the impact on constituent services would be when no one is the sole representative for a geographic area. Perhaps a risk is that no one would take ownership to the most difficult areas, i.e. those with the most poverty or under-resources in other ways.

  9. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/28/2013 - 02:13 pm.

    “The Founding Fathers tried to make it difficult to pass new laws for a reason.”

    They were concerned that a too strong federal government would eliminate slavery. And that turned out to be case, leading to the collapse of the constitutional system in the Civil War. Contrast this with the un gridlocked British Parliamentary system which was able to peacefully end slavery decades before America, and was able to do it without a Civil War.

    • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 11/04/2013 - 07:42 am.

      Slavery

      Hiram, I don’t think this is a particularly fair argument. The British were more easily able to outlaw slavery because they had very few people that were dependent on it. Contrast that with the South where the economy was based on slaves and plantations. It would have been much, much harder to simply throw that aside. Obviously, I agree with the Brits on the moral side here but I don’t think they got there because of the parliamentary system.
      And speaking of Civil wars, England endured decades of civil wars (hot and cold) during the 1600’s, even though they had a parliament. If you read about that period, you can easily see why the Founders put various things in the Constitution. They had good reasons to fear concentrations of power. They were only a few generations away from wide scale abuse of those powers.

  10. Submitted by Mike Worcester on 10/28/2013 - 02:50 pm.

    Two Thoughts

    First – The size of the U.S. House should be increased–yes, you read that correctly 🙂 — to better reflect the population growth of our nation and it’s exploding diversity. The last time the number of representatives was increased was in 1911–briefly changed in 1959, the returned to that in 1961). Yet the population of the nation has gone from 179 million in 1960 to nearly 309 million in 2010. If the same ratio from 1960 was applied to 2010, the size of the house would be 750! Does keeping it at 435 seem fair?

    Second – If you do this though, it should be combined with a requirement that all U.S. Representative seats be designed by non-partisan redistricting commissions. The time has long since passed to take it out of the hands of legislators, who have proven wholly incapable of doing the job. Our experiences in this state prove that.

    Thank you Eric for being willing to put this out there for people to examine and consider.

    • Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 10/29/2013 - 10:22 am.

      Proportional Representation Eliminates Gerrymandering

      Your first point, Mr. Worcester, is excellent, and I’m glad somebody brought it up. We need a better representative-to-population ratio, most especially in our Congress, and most particularly especially in our House of Representatives. (And if you ask me, the political power of the House with respect to the un-representative Senate should be increased in proportion to the number of Representatives in it.)

      As for your second point, I would like to repeat that proportional representation makes gerrymandering obsolete as a strategy for single-party control. If you elect five delegates per district, nothing but a coalition of five political parties together can conspire to gerrymander districts exclusively in their own interest. Proportional representation is the solution to the problem of gerrymandering, period. It will eliminate the problem much more surely than any purportedly nonpartisan commission ever could, given the temptations of an electoral system in which only one delegate is allowed to represent each district.

  11. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 10/28/2013 - 03:07 pm.

    More gridlock!!!

    Gridlock is a good thing!

    What we ought to do is go back to the original way Senators were elected. State legislators picked the State’s Senators. If that system were in effect today, Big Al would have no chance of ever being elected Senator.

    • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 10/29/2013 - 12:35 pm.

      Great!

      Remove one of the most intelligent people working in the Senate. What a great idea! What about Al’s work in the Senate have you not liked?

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/30/2013 - 08:48 am.

        What about Al’s work

        leads you to believe he’s intelligent, much less one of the most intelligent? He’s not a doctor, he’s not a scientist, he’s not an inventor. He’s a comic.

        • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/30/2013 - 03:57 pm.

          So people from the entertainment industry don’t belong

          in government?

          Then we’d better retroactively rescind the careers of Shirley Temple (ambassador to the UN during the Nixon administration), Sonny Bono (member of Congress), Arnold Schwarzenegger (governor of California), and oh yes, what was his name again? Ronald Reagan.

          • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/31/2013 - 12:38 pm.

            Ronald Reagan

            was a two-term governor of California. Maybe people like Franken should at least serve two terms on the school board first.

            • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 10/31/2013 - 03:04 pm.

              So an actor…

              can become governor, but a satirist should be on the school board?

              I can at least trust Al Franken to do the proper research if he doesn’t understand a subject, something he has proven that he is willing to do. I can’t say the same for most Conservatives.

        • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 10/31/2013 - 02:59 pm.

          He’s a satirist…

          which takes a high level of intelligence to do well. It requires a depth of understanding of a topic that most people, yourself included, just can’t reach.

          I notice you didn’t put business owners in your list of people who are intelligent.

  12. Submitted by Wilhelm Achauer on 10/28/2013 - 03:16 pm.

    Party Preference Vote

    Eliminate the primary system altogether. Parties need to start choosing their candidates and field a “team” in a professional manner. Too much is based on outsiders with outside money and fanatical factions gaining control of low turnout primaries and fielding unsuitable candidates for the major parties. Allow proportional representation that allows smaller parties a voice. A “party preference vote” in addition to a vote for a representative would add new parties with fresh ideas to the mix.

    • Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 10/31/2013 - 03:57 pm.

      This is another excellent option.

      I should have thanked you for your posting earlier, Mr. Achauer. I ought to recognize an ally when I see one, and you clearly favor a proportional system of representation.

      Douglas J. Amy, Professor of Politics at Mount Holyoke College (in South Hadley, Massachusetts), describes in some detail the system you have helpfully outlined here. Prof. Amy refers to it as “mixed-member proportional voting” (MMP). The advantage to this particular kind of proportional representation is that it preserves some regional differences as well as makes electoral outcomes proportional. It has been continuously used in the Federal Republic of Germany to elect the main chamber of its national legislature, the Federal Diet (the Bundestag), since 1949. More recently, MMP voting has been adopted in New Zealand and Hungary, as well as in the new national legislatures of Scotland and Wales.

      Read more about MMP voting here: https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/polit/damy/BeginnningReading/howprwor.htm

      I personally favor the single-transferable vote system (STV) proposed by the national FairVote organization. As Prof. Amy has pointed out, this system has been used for many years in Cambridge, Massachusetts to elect the school board and city council. You can read more about it at the Mt. Holyoke website above. However, if we should fail to implement STV broadly in the USA to elect delegates to school and county boards, councils, and legislatures, I hope we consider MMP voting as an alternative.

  13. Submitted by Josh Lease on 10/28/2013 - 04:47 pm.

    money and a mess

    I don’t see much here on what campaign finance reform would be included in such a radical restructuring; for it to work as the FairVote people desire there would almost certain have to be some kind of reform created. This could radically change how the media markets work what populations need to be reached and how, and that affects how much money is needed for an election, and what makes a candidate viable.

    There are also some other representation issues here with this A/B mock up: reps on the A-side would be forced to cover a heck of a lot of geographic territory…how good would the representation be? Additionally, this idea completely ignores concepts of keeping communities of interest together. Sorry, southwestern MN and northeastern MN have some pretty different interests on the federal level, don’t you think?

    Additionally, multi-member districts were eliminated as a means of empowering minority representation (and preventing minority vote dilution, which was the intent in the South) so is the assumption that demographic trends just solve that problem here? Or does FairVote not care?

    Look, I agree there’s all kinds of problems with Congress right now, but it’s because certain factions of the GOP have become allergic to compromise, not because of partisanship, per se. The “FairVote” plan seems designed to eliminate diversity (of thought and members) in its desire to eliminate partisanship (which isn’t necessarily the desirable goal they think it is).

    I understand this is a summary article that doesn’t delve into the fullest of detail, but I have to say I’m getting sick and tired of people like FairVote telling me they have a solution to all of our political problems based on a redesign of our voting systems that they don’t fully understand or can predict how they’ll function in real-world execution.

  14. Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 10/28/2013 - 11:27 pm.

    Amen – But Why Don’t We Call It Proportional Representation?

    Thanks for this introduction, Eric Black.

    I am happy to see that there exists a national FairVote organization that favors a proportional electoral system and aims ultimately to democratize an aristocratic institution that sorely needs it: our Congress. Of course, I hope that we will demonstrate the strengths of more proportional electoral systems in smaller chambers of elected representatives first, such as school boards, city councils, and state legislatures.

    The electoral system that we have today, which represents us inaccurately (and does so often not by accident, but by design), is inferior to one that would represent us more accurately. Our republic was designed by wealthy white men, some of whom were particularly keen to protect the institution of slavery from the threat of too much democracy. Once slavery was abolished, there was no need to preserve the Electoral College (which would later give us President George W. Bush), the disproportionate Senate (which had been one of the key causes of the Civil War), and the crude electoral system of first-past-the-post representation by district (which encourages gerrymandering). But rather than democratize these instruments of aristocratic dominance, we made matters worse by adding the wretched Senate filibuster, and more recently the reprehensible Hastert Rule in the House of Representatives.

    That having been said, I have two complaints about the reform side of this debate, which is admittedly my own side.

    1. I am tired of hearing the advocates of better electoral systems making promises that I know they cannot keep. Proportional representation will NOT save us from gridlock – but when gridlock does happen, it will let us hear ALL sides of the issue, rather than only the views of two antiquated political parties, excluding all others. Proportional representation will NOT save us from partisanship or polarization, and has NO inherent bias in favor of moderation – but it will create more political parties to choose from and a more nuanced political debate, and usually, these parties will have to form coalitions in order to govern. And alas, proportional representation has nothing to do with campaign finance reform, and without this, it may not by itself produce better government at all.

    On the other hand, when advocates claim that proportional representation will make gerrymandering obsolete, they’re absolutely right about that, and I’m glad to see that they’re starting to emphasize this.

    2. Moreover, I am confused when a political organization tells me that ranked-choice voting and the single-transferable vote system are two different things. (Douglas J. Amy, whose books taught me everything I know about proportional representation, has used the terms “RCV” and “STV” interchangeably.) I understand that the RCV (or STV) method is necessarily more complicated when you have multi-member districts (because there are two reasons rather than one why your single vote may be transfered, and we need to make this crystal clear), but does this justify using yet another name? I accepted the change from instant-runoff voting (IRV) to RCV, but please, one of these days, let’s just pick a term and hold onto it for a while, shall we? In order to promote the broadest possible understanding of what we are about, we should, as clearly as possible, define and explain the technical terms we use – but then we should stick with them! When we change the words we use so often, we sound like we don’t have the courage of our own convictions.

    And finally, why not come right out and say that we favor PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION? What’s wrong with this term? Are we so disgusted with ourselves, the voting citizens of a purported republic, that we would rather have anything but an electoral system that represents the real existing diversity of our own opinions more accurately? John Stuart Mill came out in favor of the principle of proportional representation back in 1861. Proportional representation, in various mixed and unmixed forms, has established itself in numerous stable republics, including many of our nation’s friendliest allies. The people who vote in these places differ widely in culture and temperament, but they all have one thing in common: They all enjoy having more real choices in every election than we do. What are we so afraid of?

  15. Submitted by Kathy Speed on 10/29/2013 - 12:18 am.

    Responsive elections

    When the candidate for the congressional seat representing your district raises 85% (or more) of their campaign funds from outside the State, then ranked voting alone is unlikely to result in a candidate having an affinity for the issues of direct impact or interest to you. Rather than limit the amount of money that can be given to a candidate, it would be better to limit the geographical source in my opinion. Just as nominating petitions must carry a minimum number of eligible voters within a district to demonstrate viability of a candidate for office, there could a ratio between in-state donations/outstate donations. If all States adopted that policy then there would be less “dark” money raised and spent to distort an election as corporations and unions would be limited to contributing in the State which they are headquartered in or have independent chapters. With timely transparent disclosure, if you have wealthy individuals, corporations or organizations in your State providing the majority of a candidate’s funding, then voters can decide for themselves how they feel about that. Redistricting should be handled by non-partisan committees supervised by independent judges to ensure that proportional representation is guided by the core value of having competitive districts in all areas of the State. No safe seats. If both Democrats and Republicans have to present their arguments on the merits during an election then it would be likely that both parties would more responsive to the voters who elect them instead of being insulated from accountability.

  16. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 10/29/2013 - 08:53 am.

    Get the Big Money OUT

    Shifting our electoral system in this way would do NOTHING more nor less than provide an opportunity, in the midst of the resulting chaos, for big money to take even tighter control of our government by providing those seeking election with “help”,…

    (for which those elected officials, desiring RE-election will be only too willing – while maintaining denial about that reality – to keep those “helpers” happy in order to have the same “help” during the next election cycle).

    Unless and until we wipe our elections clean of the current reality: one dollar equals one measure of influence over our politicians, which, in our current media-saturated environment, effectively cancels out the “one man, one vote” principal,…

    we will continue to move closer and closer to government “of the oligarchy, by the oligarchy, and for the oligarchy;”…

    an oligarchy made up primarily of those for whom the same constellation of psychological dysfunctions that drove them to become outrageously (and undeservedly) wealthy in the first place,…

    those who have no “off” switch on their desire for ever greater wealth – whose wealth will NEVER make them happy because they are incapable of experiencing long-term satisfaction,…

    will also cause them to force government policies and procedures that will destroy the rest of the population and ultimately the nation that provided them with the means to accumulate that wealth.

    I realize a constitutional amendment (or a change in justices at the Supreme Court) would be necessary to stop our steady slide into oligarchy, but I’m convinced that campaign finance reform is the ONLY thing that will prevent us from allowing the wealthy to sweep this nation into the rubbish bin of history,…

    while projecting blame on everyone ELSE for the inevitable and very predictable results of the policies and procedures their dysfunctions forced them to pursue.

    Many if not most of the fabulously wealthy are ill. It is their illness that has caused them to do whatever it took to become so wealthy, and blinded them to the effects their attitudes and actions have had on their own well being, that of the people around them, our nation, and the planet we share. We allow them undue influence at our extreme peril.

    Many if not most of the wealthy are deeply limited and flawed in their attitudes and their perspectives, but completely blind to that fact. To borrow from “Tevia,” BECAUSE they’re rich, “they think they really know.” They haven’t the slightest clue in the world that there’s a very great deal they DON’T know, which is why granting them so much influence is so dangerous.

  17. Submitted by Wayne Nealis on 10/29/2013 - 12:30 pm.

    Representation gap is issue as well

    I applaud any ideas that encourage discussion about how to reform our election system, including Fair Votes’ multi-district. However, I think Americans are quite wedded to “their” congressperson representing a specific area…as such, multidistrict would be a hard sell. I suggest that an overlooked area in the election reform debate is inadequate representation i.e. the ratio of congressional representatives to the population.

    In 1912, the number of House members was set by law at 435. Since then the population has increased by more than three times from 92 to 306 million. In 1912 each House member represented approximately 211,500 men, women and children, today it is over 700,000. Of this number, about 489,000 are eligible voters making the ratio by far the highest among peer nations.

    For example Brazil’s ratio is one to 245,563, Germany is one to 101,095 and Mexico one to 155,000. I call it the “representation gap” and suggest increasing the “peoples” house by 50 percent to 654 or doubling it to 874, which would bring the ratio to 234,000 per member. We should also elect House members for 4 years with a rotation like the Senate so perhaps one-third or one-half are elected every two years.

    I have found people receptive to this idea, though it would certainly encounter initial skepticism among an electorate that is already is cynical about Congress’ ability to function. I can imagine people saying: We don’t need more of them!

    But the idea of more representation gets people thinking. With a lower ratio citizens are more likely to get to know their representative personally, it would make it easier to hold officials accountable and perhaps most important make it easier to challenge incumbents as smaller amounts of money would be needed to communicate to fewer voters.

    A real grassroots campaign with few expensive TV ads could win. This reform is an idea that would disturb the powerful and moneyed interests that now only need to worry about purchasing a few hundred House votes every couple years.

  18. Submitted by Robert Lilly on 10/31/2013 - 07:52 am.

    KISS

    As I recall, a few years ago I read an article ( I think it was on MP), about the Chinese experimenting with a system similar to how we select for jury duty. This was just for local government positions but I think it would be a remarkable transition from our current state. Think of it, no outside money could buy your representative, none of the mudslinging no commercials! Every other year your rep gets a vote of confidence, if they get more than 50% they get another term. If they want to leave or fail the vote,,, draw another name. I truly believe that the average person armed with the right information will make better decisions than the Ideologues we have now.
    Yes, I have a dream.

  19. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 11/04/2013 - 08:01 am.

    Few Questions

    This system seems overly complicated. Is there any reason to prefer this over the Iowan system?

    What happens if an office holder dies or moves out of office? A special election from the whole super-region? Is someone of the same party appointed?

    Why do they think this would reduce gridlock? In the example for Minnesota, they’ve created six safe seats. Why would those seats go to moderates? Because the party would want to appeal to those in the middle? They risk angering their base that way.

    This system basically does away with minority-majority districts, right? Have they thought that part through? It seems like after the big arguments over the Voting rights act, etc, we shouldn’t just glide past that.

  20. Submitted by Doug Gray on 11/07/2013 - 08:53 pm.

    Careful what you ask for

    After moving to Virginia in 1980 we went through three state legislative elections in three years over just such a multimember scheme. The upshot was very, very few minorities represented in the General Assembly.

    Last March Thomas F. Schaller commented on just this idea at http://www.centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/articles/multi-member-legislative-districts-just-a-thing-of-the-past/:

    “…there are at least two dozen states with significant minority populations that would risk Voting Rights Act or other legal challenges were they to employ MMDs in any form that prevented the election of a reasonable number of racial minorities to the House or otherwise diminished the voting power of non-white voters.”

    Could Keith Ellison be elected from the proposed “MN District B?” I have my doubts.

Leave a Reply