How to End Our Dysfunctional Congressional Election System
By Parker Richards | Jun 30, 2017
The American electoral system is a holdout from another era. First-past-the-post elections, in which the top vote-getter in a single-member legislative seat wins, are now used in only two other developed countries—Britain and Canada—alongside a cadre of African, Asian, and Pacific countries, usually nations with strong ties to British colonial rule. Representative Don Beyer, a Democrat who represents northern Virginia, hopes to take the United States off the list by creating multi-member districts for the House of Representatives and instituting ranked-choice voting.
Beyer introduced the Fair Representation Act on Monday with support from Rep. Ro Khanna of California and Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, both Democrats. The bill would not only institute nonpartisan redistricting commissions and a new voting system designed to create a proportionally representational Congress, but also aims to dramatically reduce the number of safe seats for each party and eliminate the unopposed reelection of representatives.
“The country is divided along class, racial, and ideological lines as never before, and frustration with our brand of politics is at a tipping point,” Beyer said at a press conference announcing the bill.
The measure is backed by the electoral reform advocacy group FairVote, which claims it would end gerrymandering and lopsided representation by state. States like Oklahoma and Massachusetts currently have House delegations composed entirely of one party’s members, but a large minority of the voters in each typically back the minority party. The anomaly is so pronounced that, in the 2012 House elections, Democrats beat Republicans by 1.2 percent in the national popular vote, but won 33 fewer House seats than the GOP. Beyer’s legislation seeks to end that disparity while also creating opportunities for more women and underrepresented minorities, as well as third parties, to gain House seats.
The Fair Representation Act uses the single transferable vote system, similar to the one currently in place in Ireland. Each voter ranks all candidates standing for a particular seat. If a voter’s first preference is eliminated, his second preference vote would be counted instead, and so on. When a candidate reaches a quota and is elected, the next preferences of all voters who supported her are accounted for, and excess votes above the quota are distributed. States with just one member would still use a ranked system called instant-runoff voting, in which no candidate could be elected without a majority.
Currently, several states have multi-member districts for their state legislatures, but none use ranked-choice voting, meaning that a party that receives a majority of votes will likely receive all the seats.
In 2014, 31 congressional representatives were re-elected unopposed. In theory, a system of ranked-choice voting would end unopposed elections. The bill’s backers hope this would eliminate safe seats in Congress and encourage cooperation between members, rather than rewarding the ideological intransigence that ultra-partisan districts often foster.
“European monarchies turn over at a faster rate [than Congress],” Khanna said at the event, referencing an Economist article.