Congress is broken, and everyone knows it. Its approval ratings hover around 10 percent, and a recent poll from Public Policy Polling found that Congress is currently less popular than cockroaches, lice and traffic jams. It has difficulty getting any sort of business done, let alone address our nation's major challenges, like climate change, immigration, poverty and fiscal policy.
But amidst the partisan fingerpointing and bickering, one core aspect of the way our government works gets a free pass. We hear a lot about campaign finance and gerrymandering, but single-member district elections – that is, having each House member represent one congressional district – are without doubt the single greatest cause of what is broken about Congress. They are the key reason why Republicans easily kept control of the House despite losing the popular vote to Democrats, and why the political center has lost out to partisans on both sides of the aisle. They turn four out of five voters effectively into spectators who have absolutely no chance of affecting their representation in Congress. They help keep women’s representation in the House stalled at less than 18 percent, and grossly distort fair representation by party and race.
We want to make four arguments. First, House elections today have a fundamental partisan skew against both Democratic and moderate candidates. Second, that partisan skew creates perverse incentives for how Republicans approach policymaking and helps explain the Republican Party’s poor performance in the presidential elections since the 1980s. Third, while partisan gerrymandering is abhorrent, the real problem is one of districting, not redistricting. Establishing independent redistricting commissions is not enough. Fourth, it’s easier to fix these problems than much of what ails our politics, as voting alternatives to winner-take-all elections offer a straightforward statutory approach grounded in our own electoral traditions.
Times change, and with those changes should come willingness to ask whether the fundamentals of our democracy still work. Our nation's history has been one of regular evolution of our democratic practices, but our minds have become increasingly closed to change.
It’s time for a new way of looking at U.S. House elections.
The fundamental bias of the House
Democrats had a very good 2012 election. In the presidential race, Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney by 126 electoral votes and nearly five million popular votes. Republicans won only eight Senate races, the worst performance for a major party in Senate races since the 1950’s.
In House races, Democratic candidates won about a million more votes nationwide than Republicans and would have increased that margin substantially if all races had been contested. After controlling for factors like vote inflation for incumbents and uncontested races, the data suggests voters generally preferred Democrats for Congress by a 52 to 48 percent margin.
Yet Republicans won a comfortable majority of 234 seats, compared to the Democrats' 201. That disparity in voter preference compared to seats did not result from ticket-splitting; in fact, there were only 24 districts in which one party’s nominee carried the presidential vote and the other party’s nominee won the congressional race, all but four of which were won by an incumbent. The real problem for Democrats was that in a year in which Barack Obama won a decisive presidential election victory, he carried only 207 of 435 congressional districts.
Although it had an obvious impact, Republican gerrymandering in states like Ohio and North Carolina was not the key reason for this result. It is unconscionable that most states still allow elected officials to draw the lines of their own districts to maximize their electoral invulnerability. But analyses from FairVote and the Brennan Center strongly suggest that gerrymandering only benefited Republicans by about 10 seats. Having more incumbents likely gave Republicans another three or four seats. But the overall voter preference for Democrats should have delivered fully 25 more seats to Democratic candidates.
The core reason for this distortion – and its ongoing impact on policy – lies in two basic facts about the American political system: a growing concentration of Democratic voters in urban areas, particularly those part of the coalition of single women, racial minorities and young people that boosted Barack Obama, and the winner-take-all, single-member district system currently used to elect members of Congress.
Those urban Democrats allowed President Obama to win re-election by nearly five million votes this year even while winning only 22 percent of counties nationwide. Similarly, in congressional races, Democrats win by huge margins in many urban areas, while Republicans win by smaller but still safe margins in more districts. The differences are stark. Democrats represent 47 districts with a partisanship of more than 70 percent to 30 percent in their favor, while Republicans represent only 23 such districts. Of the 16 districts with a partisan split of at least 80/20, Democrats represent 15. Many of those Democratic votes in heavily Democratic districts are effectively wasted.
The end result is a congressional map in which 241 districts have a Republican lean – with adds up to an intrinsic 55 percent to 45 percent edge in seats. That partisan skew goes back for decades, including being almost exactly the same in the 1990s when Democrats largely controlled redistricting. But the problem wasn’t obvious because Democrats routinely won in Republican districts. Although their numbers were diminished in 1994, some long-serving Republican-district Democrats held on, and George Bush’s unpopularity in his second term allowed new victories deep into Republican turf.
But it took just one bad year to wipe out years of Democratic progress. Before 2010, Democrats held 32 congressional districts in which the partisan lean was more than 54 to 46 percent in favor of Republicans. After the 2010 election, that number declined to 13. Now it’s just nine, even after a year that favored Democrats.
If a clear majority of districts favor Republicans, and Democrats are unable to win in Republican-favoring districts, the logical conclusion is inescapable. Barring a Democratic wave election of greater magnitude than has been seen in years, Democrats won’t win back the House of Representatives.
Explaining the behavior of Republicans in Congress
Respected political scientists Tom Mann and Norman Ornstein, in their 2012 book "It’s Even Worse Than It Looks," identified the sharp move to the right of House Republicans as a key reason for congressional dysfunction. But they didn’t address the institutional incentives for such a move that derive from the enduring partisan skew in congressional districts.
The rightward shift of congressional Republicans began in the early 1990s, when House minority whip Newt Gingrich discovered a way to overthrow nearly four decades of Democratic dominance in the House, grounded in white Democrats winning in the South. With so many Democrats representing districts where Republican presidential nominees were winning, the incentive for Republicans was clear: to stop that pattern of ticket-splitting they had to drive a wedge between the parties by moving the Republican Party sharply to the right. With a clear distinction between the parties, Republicans merely had to wait until voters were angry with Democrats and make their move.
The backlash against Democratic control of government after two years of Bill Clinton’s presidency created that chance – and in 1994 Republicans took over the House with their Contract with America. Sixteen years later, Republicans had a similar opportunity after two years of Barack Obama leading a Democratic Congress – and they drove the party even further to the right, as embodied by the Tea Party movement.
Today they have little incentive to move back. In a 2012 election broadly defined as a “choice” election, Mitt Romney won 21 more House districts than Barack Obama – and nearly every Republican congressional candidate won in a district with a Republican lean. Fully half the Republican caucus now comes from the South. Secure in their strongholds, House Republicans now have more to fear from a primary challenge than a Democrat in the general election.
The implications for governing policymaking are dire. The only electoral incentive is for Republicans in Congress to refuse to compromise on any issue. With a congressional map biased in their favor, Republicans not only have the incentive but the power to stop government from functioning. Grover Norquist thrives with his anti-tax pledge in such a climate, with ongoing implications for how the parties can work together on addressing our nation’s budget deficit and new spending priorities. And Democrats waiting for their party to be bolder on issues like gun violence have to factor in that Democrats can only retake a House majority by winning in dozens of districts that will be won by the Republican presidential candidate in a nationally close election.
Why independent redistricting alone is inadequate
Because Republicans gained from redistricting in 2011 and because pundits have been beating the gerrymandering drum as what’s wrong with House races, it is unsurprising that so many people suggest the answer lies in independent redistricting committees. Though such committees have value, when it comes to our broken Congress, this reform is akin to the proverbial rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic.
Any assumption that nationwide independent redistricting commissions would do away with partisan bias would only hold true if a commission’s only priority was fair partisan representation. It could be done, but only through “reverse gerrymanders” that would spread urban voters out into suburban and rural areas – and wipe out many districts in the South where racial minorities elect have the power to elect candidates of choice. As evidence of the impact of Democrats’ demographic challenges in drawing such plans, see the incredible congressional gerrymander produced by Maryland Democrats in 2011.
Independent redistricting committees rightly don’t operate that way. Few of their adherents envision such gerrymanders as part of the solution, as so much of their rhetoric targets bizarre-looking districts. As an example of how commissions really work, Arizona’s independent commission lists the following criteria for drawing its districts, in rough order of priority:
- Equal population
- Compactness and contiguousness
- Compliance with the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act
- Respect for communities of interest
- Incorporation of visible geographic features, including city, town and county boundaries, as well as undivided census tracts
- Creation of competitive districts where there is no significant detriment to other goals
Accurately representing the partisan popular vote of the state is not even listed as a criterion, much less a priority. Nor is it likely to be a key consideration as long as we continue to place importance on values like compactness, contiguousness, and incorporation of city borders and geographic features -- and districts drawn without consideration of these factors would essentially defeat the purpose of having representatives for specific geographic districts in the first place.
The problem is districting, not redistricting. Fortunately, there are reform options that address that more basic dilemma.
The route to a balanced and effective Congress: Constitutional forms of fair voting
The real problem at the root of the Democratic demographic disadvantage and the gridlocked Congress is the statutory decision to elect House members exclusively through single-seat, winner-take-all elections.
The best way to remove the structural unfairness inherent in the current House of Representatives is to get rid of winner-take-all elections. FairVote has a plan to do just that, grounded in our Constitution and American electoral traditions. The first requirement is an act of Congress. The more ambitious plan would be for Congress to prohibit winner-take-all elections in all states that elect more than one House member. A more modest step would be to repeal the congressional mandate for states to use single-member districts that was established in 1967.
Our plan is fully constitutional and would combine existing congressional districts into multi-seat “super districts” of between three and five members, in which members would be elected using fair voting systems – American forms of proportional representation based on voting for candidates – and most voters would help to elect a candidate that they support.
These voting methods have already proven their effectiveness in our local elections and for over 100 years in state legislative elections in Illinois. When fair voting is used in a five-seat district, like-minded voters who make up 20 percent of the district would be sure of electing at least one candidate. The plan would reliably result in balanced and accurate representation of the left, center and right of every district, as would other proven voting methods that are consistent with our traditions of voting for candidates rather than for parties.
Switching to fair voting would balance congressional elections between the parties. Under the current system, there are 195 seats that favor Republicans by at least 54 to 46 percent, but only 166 seats that favor Democrats at that level of safety.
Under the plans we propose, for the U.S. House there would be 195 Republican-leaning seats, 192 Democratic-leaning seats and 42 seats that would regularly swing between the parties. And while the major parties would usually win the seats leaning their way, voters would have credible general election options within their party of preference as well as among third parties and independents.
In the long run, fair voting could also help save the Republican Party. Although congressional Republicans earn a partisan advantage under current rules, the party is hurting in presidential and senatorial elections. Today, Republicans can only win in certain areas of the country. As they become more and more reliant on these strongholds, their presidential candidates become less successful in being able to build support in areas where more voters live.
As a result, the identity of the Republican Party at the national level has become more closely associated with positions that today seem to be a minority view among Americans. For the party to evolve with the times, they need to be able to contest and win seats everywhere in the country. But that broadening of their tent won’t happen if we continue to elect Congress with a single-member district, winner-take-all electoral system.