We Need To Change the Way We Elect Members of Congress

Dome of the U.S. Capitol divided into four different sized rectangles, misaligned on one another. The rectangles are tinted blue, red, green and purple.

As the latest redistricting cycle approaches its highly litigated conclusion, the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives will in part depend on whether state courts approve or reject a handful of outstanding district maps, many of which have been drawn to heavily favor one political party. The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to exacerbate this crisis by awarding absolute power over districting decisions to state legislatures, setting back efforts for fair districting in the United States by about 200 years.

Meanwhile, even ostensibly “fair” maps are almost entirely uncompetitive. At this point, only 5% of districts are genuine toss-ups, with an additional 5% classified as “lean” districts. That adds up to a mere one in ten districts as two party competitive — the latest dip in a steady and slow decline. And this redistricting cycle has been disastrous for minority representation

Though the rise in independent redistricting commissions has managed to hold back some of the damage, the core problem is bigger. We will never achieve truly fair and competitive legislative districts so long as we cling onto single-winner districts, and the hyperpartisan two-party system that has emerged from them.

There is a solution: proportional representation, and the multiparty system proportional representation would engender. It’s a proven solution that would ensure that all votes count equally, that all voters are better represented and that anti-democratic forces are sidelined — and it would fundamentally dissolve the zero-sum, high-stakes “doom loop” destroying our politics. 

But first, we need to understand the problem. 

Single-winner districts are exactly what they sound like: legislative districts where, in most cases, the single candidate who wins the most votes gets elected. When a party’s only path to power requires building a large enough coalition to win a plurality of votes, third parties threaten to fracture the coalition of the party they are closest to, inevitably resulting in a sharply divided two-party system.

In theory, the single-winner district is the simplest form of elections possible. In practice, the simplicity is deceptive, because it creates a strong incentive for partisan lawmakers to draw complicated districts that skew election results. Under single-winner districts, where voters live becomes the most important factor in translating seats into votes. Move voters into a neighboring district, and you can change who wins. This creates tremendous opportunities for gerrymandering.

By contrast, under proportional representation, every voter matters equally, regardless of where they live. In a proportional system with multi-winner districts, a political party’s share of votes in an election determines its share of seats in the legislature. If a party wins 40% of the votes, it wins roughly 40% of the seats. This allows for meaningful differences among voters to be reflected in their representation. Every vote is potentially pivotal. And most voters wind up with a representative who they actually voted for, so more voters can feel like winners — an underappreciated component of a functioning democracy with widespread public trust.

Even without gerrymandering, single-winner districts tend to underrepresent urban areas. Cities tend to be overwhelmingly supportive of parties on the left (this is true in the United Kingdom and Canada as well, the only other two advanced democracies with plurality-rule single-winner districts). As a result, urban voters tend to waste more of their votes in lopsided districts, whereas exurban conservative voters tend to be better distributed. This harms the center-right as well, because their party overwhelmingly draws from the most conservative regions in the country.

Single-winner districts also mean that most contests are uncompetitive, and therefore most voters wind up in districts where their votes are irrelevant. Though the geographic sorting of voters into politically homogeneous areas over the last several decades has intensified this problem, there has never been a period in U.S. history in which the majority of congressional districts were competitive for both parties.

However, a system that preserved single-winner districts while mandating equal balance between the parties could be even worse. Improving the partisan fairness of congressional outcomes under single-winner districts essentially means guaranteeing a share of seats for each party — an outcome that leaves most voters without a real say in which party represents their district.

The other and equally profound advantage of proportional representation is that it allows for more political parties to form. Under single-winner districts, third parties are spoilers and wasted votes. Under proportional representation, more parties are viable. 

For voters, this means more choices. Rather than voting for the lesser of two evils, voters are more likely to affirmatively vote for a party they are enthusiastic about. And because parties can’t campaign solely by demonizing their opponents, parties are more likely to focus on the policies they support. A more competitive party system can also force parties to innovate more.

By contrast, in our current system, parties aim to win on demonization — especially the current iteration of the Republican Party, which has been taken over by an “own the libs” faction that lacks much of a political agenda beyond stopping the Democrats. Within this intensely polarized political environment, it is justifiable to break the norms of democratic engagement if doing so keeps one’s political enemies out of power. 

There is no undoing this “doom loop” of hyper-partisan polarization within the single-winner system. Only multiparty democracy can break the binary.

Yet, to many Americans, the single-winner congressional district and the two-party system feel as inevitable as the air we breathe. Those of us who have followed American politics our whole lives have not known anything else. But our continued use of the single-winner district, and the two-party system it enables and preserves, is nothing but an accident of history. It is not mandated in the U.S. Constitution. And among advanced democracies, it is a relative rarity.

Could proportional representation really happen in the U.S.? Wouldn’t the two parties oppose it? Perhaps. But “the parties” are organizations, not individuals. Certainly, the parties have various leaders who might oppose change. But the parties are ultimately coalitions of politicians, interest groups, donor networks, activists and voters. If enough of these coalition members collectively decide the current two-party system and the single-winner districts that support it are not working for them, they can demand an alternative electoral system. There is nothing sacred about how we do elections today. The Constitution allows much more opportunity for change than many believe.

Indeed, throughout American political history, periods of major democracy reform have emerged at moments in which the status quo was intolerable for almost everybody. The Progressive Era stands as the most concentrated burst of democracy reform, in which America introduced direct primaries for Congress, direct elections for the U.S. Senate, the ballot initiative and referendum process in many states, dramatically changed many city government structures and gave women the right to vote. A period of great dissatisfaction and broken politics in the late Gilded Age gave way to a period of reform. 

The conditions are similar today, with widespread angst and anger, and few defenders of the status quo. Moments of uncertainty and instability come along rarely in our history, but they do happen. As we enter into such a moment, the future will belong to those who have a vision and plan. In this current crisis of democracy, it is very easy to focus only on the immediate threats. But we cannot just play defense. We need a fairer, more representative and more responsive democracy. And we believe proportional representation is essential to achieve that vision.

Charlotte Hill is a political scientist and research fellow at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. She recently sat on the national boards of FairVote and RepresentUs.

Lee Drutman is a senior fellow at New America and the author of “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America.” 

Hill and Drutman are co-founders of Fix Our House, a new campaign for proportional representation.