The reason is that when your district majority matches your party, you need only fear primary election voters who are quick to threaten apostasy from the party line. This intensifies polarization in Congress, making legislative compromises necessary for passing bills all but impossible. Power continues to shift dangerously to the executive. The end result is a death spiral for our constitutional order.
The good news is that there is a way out: replacing our winner-take-all elections with a form of proportional representation where every voter matters in every election. It comes in the form of the Fair Representation Act, a bill introduced recently by Representative Don Beyer, a Democrat from Virginia, that is centered on two key changes.
Step 1 is to elect House members with ranked choice voting in primary and general elections, a system proven in a dozen cities and adopted in Maine for congressional elections. Voters are able to rank candidates in order of choice, and their votes go to second choices if their first choice is in last place and loses.
Step 2 is to establish congressional districts with multiple representatives. Smaller states with fewer than six seats would elect all seats statewide. In bigger states, independent commissions would draw districts designed to elect up to five seats based on traditional criteria like keeping counties intact. Multi-winner districts were used in some House elections as recently as the 1960s and remain common in local and state elections.
What would transform politics would be combining ranked choice voting with multi-winner districts. That would replace winner-take-all voting — whereby up to 49.9 percent of the voters win nothing — with fair representation where the majority elects the most seats, but everyone gains the power to elect their fair share.
Consider Connecticut, where Democrats in 2016 easily won all five congressional seats, and Oklahoma, where Republicans won all five seats by landslide. Under the Fair Representation Act, House candidates would run statewide in both states. Voters would rank the candidates on their ballots. In the first round of counting, any candidate with one-sixth of the vote plus one would win a seat, while the last place candidate would be eliminated and her votes redistributed among the remaining candidates. This process would continue until all five seats were filled. The complex math of the process is in service of a simple principle: ensuring that a majority group elects the most seats, but not more than its fair share.
The result: Republicans would likely win two seats in Connecticut, and Democrats a seat or two in Oklahoma. And the same result would be replicated across the nation: A computer projection of how the law would work showed that in all states with at least three House seats, there would be no single-party districts.
That means there would be rural Democrats and urban Republicans. Members of both major parties would share districts, with new incentives to collaborate on legislation addressing their shared constituents’ needs. Candidates would be forced to reflect a greater mix of views and voters would have real choices, including third party and independent candidates. A more representative and functional Congress would regain legitimacy.
Congress not only has the power to act to reform its elections, but the obligation. In the past, it mandated single-winner congressional districts to avoid partisans manipulating outcomes with at-large elections, but that approach has led to today’s polarized politics. It’s time for a better standard.