Last Tuesday’s special election in Georgia provided a vivid example of just how tribal and polarized our politics have become.
The Democratic candidate, Jon Ossoff, bested a 17-candidate field in an April primary, earning 48.1 percent of the vote in the Peach State’s 6h Congressional District. He fell just short of capturing a majority, however, setting up the June 20 finale against Karen Handel, who led a crowded Republican field but ended the primary a distant second to Ossoff, with 20 percent.
We all know what happened: Handel consolidated the Republican vote and romped to victory. Ossoff needed to improve his performance among Republicans and independents by just 2 percentage points. Not only did he fail to bring those voters to his side, he also couldn’t bring along any wider support at all: He earned, for the second consecutive election, 48.1 percent.
These fierce partisan divisions have done a job on our democracy. Most voters — at least 85 percent of them — are now locked into a congressional district that’s so safe for one party or the other that you can predict the winner two years out by looking at partisan data alone.
Some people blame gerrymandering, while others cite geography or rage against dark money. All are corrupting factors. All act as accelerants on the underlying issue: Our winner-take-all system of districting that gives all the seats to the side with 50 percent plus one vote and no representation to the other 49.9 percent. We could end gerrymandering tomorrow and it wouldn’t help the unrepresented Republicans in Connecticut, or Democrats in Kansas, feel like they had a voice in Congress.
A Virginia congressman wants to change this. Rep. Don Beyer, a Democrat, introduced something called the Fair Representation Act this week. Beyer aims to wipe out today’s map of safe red and blue seats and replace them with larger, multimember districts (drawn by nonpartisan commissions) of three, four or five representatives. Smaller states would elect all members at large. All members would then be elected with ranked-choice voting. That would ensure that as many voters as possible elect a candidate of their choice: In a multimember district with five seats, for example, a candidate could potentially win with one-sixth of the vote.
This is how you fix democracy. The larger districts would help slay the gerrymander. A ranked-choice system would eliminate our zero-sum, winner-take-all politics. Leadership of the House would belong to the side with the most votes — unlike in 2012, for example, when Democratic House candidates received 1.4 million more votes than Republicans, but the GOP maintained a 33-seat majority. No wasted votes and no spoilers, bridge builders in Congress, and (at least in theory) less negative campaigning as politicians vied to be someone’s second choice if not their first. There’s a lot to like here.
Beyer knows it’s a heavy lift and that comprehensive reform like this could take time and make some people uncomfortable at first. But he is eager to start a national conversation about reforms that could help vacuum the toxicity and dysfunction from our politics. It’s a conversation well worth having. We spoke last week by phone while he was in Washington.
Often when people talk about electoral reforms, about how we make structural changes to improve our democracy, they settle on things like independent redistricting commissions or campaign finance. What’s exciting about your bill, the Fair Representation Act, is how it attacks the real threat to our democracy: the toxic combination of hardened partisanship, winner-take-all elections and the fact that most congressional districts aren’t competitive at all. Most voters don’t get to participate in elections where their vote really counts.
You’re proposing a truly transformative approach: Larger, multimember congressional districts, combined with ranked-choice voting. How did you come to the understanding that we need to rethink districting and our voting methods themselves if we want to redeem our politics?
Well, I have long supported independent redistricting in order to overcome gerrymandering. My one published essay in my life was in a book about the Virginia General Assembly, about how ugly the redistricting process was in 1991 when I was presiding over the Senate. They were nasty fights, sometimes Democrat versus Republican, but often Democrat versus Democrat — [about] who got to choose the good voters, the secure Democrats, the big givers.
It’s been said so many times now it’s become completely trite: Voters should be choosing the elected officials [rather than] elected officials choosing the voters. But it really came home. Over the years, however, I’ve become increasingly skeptical about how long it was going to take to get legislators in the majority, with power, to willingly give up the ability to set their own districts.
Once politicians achieve that power, they tend to want to keep it. It’s always interesting to see the pledges from legislators in the minority that they really will fix this, once they taste power again. It doesn’t usually happen.
Yes! In the mid-2000s, there were some Virginia legislators, Democrats in the minority, who promised, “We’ll change this when we’re in the majority.” They never did. And sometimes the ones who say they will get redistricted into oblivion or they are retired by the time their side gets back into the majority.
So it seemed like redistricting reform would be a century-long project, at best. I don’t believe there are any referendum states left where this can progress. There’s the legal path and the case before the Supreme Court. Maybe that will work and maybe it won’t.
Then I learned about the fair representation movement. I’ll be honest, I was skeptical at first. I thought, Well, this is unlikely. But the more I listened, the more I thought, Actually, this kills about six birds with one stone.
Walk me through them.
No 1, it gets rid of most of the gerrymandering problems by creating much larger districts, five-person, three-person districts. No. 2, it fulfills the genius of current game theory, which is maximizing voter choice. Even if you're in the minority, your vote's still going to matter. No. 3, it overcomes things like Massachusetts having nine members and no Republicans, or Oklahoma or Kansas or Nebraska, where there are significant Democratic populations but every member's a Republican. It will make our campaigns more civil: You don’t want to do negative advertising when you want to be someone’s second choice rather than their sixth. You want to be high on someone’s list even if you’re not their first choice. And since a significant percentage of the fundraising that we do is to pay for negative advertising, this seems like a very good thing.
It also seems like Congress would function better under a system like this. It’s not that this would produce more centrists — but you’d have a better chance of electing people with open minds, bridge builders. There might be less bowing to the most extreme pieces of your base, out of fear of a primary challenge, and more willingness to work seriously toward solving problems.
I think that’s right. The bottom line is Congress doesn’t work. We can’t get an infrastructure bill. We can’t pass a health care bill that we all agree on. The bills we do pass tend to be on a straight party line. We don’t get legislation where people try to improve each other’s bills — where we can disagree but are forced to work together to find common ground.
Do you ever see any of that now? Those members just don’t seem to exist anymore.
No, you have complete polarization. Right now the Republicans shove things down our throats, and if the Democrats take back the House, we’d shove things down their throats.
The Congress is polarized. As we saw again in Georgia this week, voters are absolutely tribal. Can there be any change as long as the divisions are this hardened, this unyielding?
I haven’t seen anything like this. My eight years in the Virginia Senate weren’t nearly as polarized. It would be the rare thing that broke along these strict party lines.
There are many causes of the tribalism and the division within the country, but if we could take away the divisiveness in Congress, specifically in the U.S. House — I think it's worse in the House than it is in the Senate, where people have an incentive to work together — that would have ripple effects throughout the population.
I represent a very liberal district, a very Democratic district. It’s [pro-]free trade, so it’s not Bernie liberal; they didn’t vote for Bernie at all. And we polled on this — although that’s not why I did it— but when I ran three years ago, we tested: “Would you rather your congressman be a liberal champion fighting for progressive values” versus “someone who worked across party lines to get things done.” Two to one, the latter.
You’re always looking for something to pass the “nod test” when you’re speaking. I had a fundraiser last week and among the things I said was “Let me tell you about what I’m co-sponsoring with Republicans”
And how did that go over in this climate?
Yeah. And these are progressives, Democrats who have written me checks. Person after person came up to say thanks for doing things to work together.
I’m a little surprised! So you’re suggesting the polarization within Congress might be worse than the polarization among voters? Do members feel constrained by this polarization? Because I would imagine something that gets said a lot is “I can’t work with you on that because it would get me in trouble in the district.”
True. Many, many times. Not to be too hard on people, but I sometimes find that the committee staffs are far more partisan than the members. They’ll prepare talking points that demonize the other side. I’m always striking them out because I want them to vote for my bill. Talking about how bad they are is not going to help me.
How do you evaluate the health of our democracy in this moment, in this . . . era?
I choose to look at the . . . phenomenon as a blip. One of those historical outliers and explained by many, many different things. Some of it is just the coarsening of our culture. Look at how many penises are chopped off on “Game of Thrones” or “House of Cards” — pushing reporters in front of the metro. But also it's the fact that in an economy that's doing very well, there are people that aren't.
The American people are still fundamentally very good people. And getting better. Even though racism is still a problem, I think we're less racist than we've ever been. And even though homophobia is still somewhat of a problem, we are way less homophobic than we've ever been. And I'm just thrilled [that] last week the two police officers that saved all those lives at the ball field in Alexandria were two African-Americans. And the woman who was shot was an African-American woman married to another woman.
Yes. She was protecting a divisive congressman who had said some pretty ugly things on those topics.
Yeah. But they didn’t hesitate. And that example gives me great hope. I really believe that everything comes in small changes, but I think all the Republicans affected by that will not be immune to the wisdom of what those officers did.
So does this moment offer the power for real transformative electoral change? How do you talk your colleagues into these crucial reforms that may be new to them? Are we finally in a moment where the need to save democracy could push us in a direction of genuine change?
I think it's a moment to begin. But because it's new and different and strange, it's going to take time. Everyone hates change. There aren't that many competitive seats here, right? So most people are in secure seats and so they got their $174,000 a year and they have their pension and their little congressional pin and it's not going to be easy to say, "Let's make a new system." Even though it would be a very good thing. So my expectation is that we will educate, persuade, teach people one at time, and slowly build enough Democrats and Republicans that say, "OK, this is worthwhile." Sometime in their future, they can do it.
Were the Democrats to take back the House, do you feel there is an appetite to take on these kinds of small-D democratic reforms? Or would it be the same thing you saw in Virginia: Our turn to be in control!
There's going be some of that, too. I can see the leadership right away saying, "Beyer, play this out! If we pass this, do we still have control of the House?" I think that would be the first question. They would say this, too: "We have a lot of other important, good things we want to do first."
It reminds me of John Tanner, the former Tennessee Democrat, who introduced a comprehensive redistricting bill when Republicans had the House, then again when the Democrats took it back in 2006 — and met with the same indifference from leadership both occasions.
Well, there will be a lot of good ideas that come forward. One of them may be that we pass this with an effective date six years or eight years down the road, so that it won't affect the people that are there. It won't affect most of them. Perhaps there’s some way to slow it down.
At least part of the argument for Republicans who are in charge is to say, Well, someday you’re not going to be in power. So let’s think long term about this. It’s going to take vision and also a certain amount of self-sacrifice. But how different the country could be over 20 or 30 years if we enacted this!
Is there an argument to make to some Republican members who perhaps understand that the way these districts were drawn in 2010, the way the geography of the country has changed has pushed their party to the right and made it harder for them to get things done? Does anyone think the last round of redistricting put the party in too tight a box?
You know, nobody has said that to me. I'm sure there are more thoughtful members who realize that. There certainly are many, many of them who realize the only reason they're in control is because of the gerrymandering. They realize that they have a 12- to 20-seat advantage on the basis of the 2010 census and 2011 redistricting. Congress is certainly far more ideologically rigid. But if we can do a bill like this, we can transform our politics.
It’s broken; it's too partisan; it's hyperpolarized. But you think it's fixable.
Yes. We can do multimember districts and get rid of the tyranny of gerrymandering. We can do instant runoff so that minorities are really reflected in Congress. We can get rid of a lot of negative campaigning and a lot of the role of money — which everybody hates. People hate having to make call after call asking for money. And if it takes 20 years, it's worth it.
I’m trying to have modest expectations and a real sense of humility. We're not just going to flip on light switches for everybody. But little by little, we can make this change.