Our partisan gerrymandering problem has reached a frightful and urgent new level. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court closed the federal courthouse doors to partisan gerrymandering claims — and opened the gates for a potentially ugly partisan free-for-all anywhere one party controls the process when new state legislative and congressional maps are drawn in 2021.
With the federal courts blocked, a new road to reform that will bring fairness to every voter in all 50 states an even more urgently needed. Since the Supreme Court won’t provide a national solution, it’s now clear that it must come from Congress. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the 5-4 majority, encouraged this route, insisting that he did not “condemn complaints about districting to echo into a void,” and noting that Congress retains the power to reform the way we draw our district lines.
One Virginia congressman is uniquely up to this challenge.
Rep. Don Beyer, a Democrat, recently reintroduced the Fair Representation Act. The bill would remake American politics and provide nothing short of the most serious and dramatic set of electoral reforms we’ve seen in modern times.
What makes Beyer’s plan so bold, and so necessary, is that it dares to tackle one of the root causes of our broken politics in this era of polarization: Single-member, winner-takes-all districts.
Our winner-take-all system, in which only one person is elected to represent each district, simply accelerates dysfunction and extremism in this era of hardened partisanship. It locks most voters into congressional districts where the outcomes are predetermined and leaves too many voters voiceless and unrepresented. So Beyer simply wipes out today’s map of safe red and blue seats and replaces them with larger, multimember districts (drawn by nonpartisan commissions) of three, four or five representatives. Smaller states would elect all members at large. Everyone would be elected with ranked-choice voting, which would ensure that as many voters as possible elect a representative who reflects their views.
This is the very best way to repair Congress.
Larger districts are almost impossible to gerrymander. A ranked-choice system would open seats to urban Republicans, and Democrats across the South. Women and candidates of color would have a better chance of winning their fair share of seats. And independents of all stripes would have a real chance to win as well. The party with the most votes would have control. But everyone, and every state, would have its range of opinion accurately represented. We’d never hear about wasted votes or “spoilers” again.
Beyer understands that this much change doesn’t happen overnight. But he’s heartened by the momentum behind ranked-choice voting nationwide. He’s also convinced that, given time and thoughtful consideration, both Democrats and Republicans will see the wisdom and the elegance of a plan that solves existential problems for representative democracy, but in a carefully nonpartisan framework.
This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.
One month ago, the U.S. Supreme Court slammed the federal courts closed to partisan gerrymandering claims. Do you see the Fair Representation Act as the solution to a problem that the Supreme Court has decided it doesn’t want to fix?
I very much do. My understanding of the Court’s decision was that drawing congressional districts for political purposes or with political data is perfectly okay. There's nothing in the constitution that. Whether or not I like that decision, the question now is where do we go from here.
We’ve seen statewide momentum for independent redistricting commissions and a lot of action at the state level. But the beauty of the Fair Representation Act is that it provides a national solution for all 50 states, while also fixing the root cause of our redistricting problem: Single-member, winner-takes-all districts that leaves so many Americans voiceless, in a district skewed to elect one party or the other.
The Fair Representation Act solves it at the federal level in one fell swoop. It is very exciting. When you talk about single-member districts, you are inevitably going to have concentrations of different kinds of voters. But with multi-member districts, you get a much broader diversity of voter types and therefore a much broader diversity of representation, which is a good thing. The Fair Representation Act presents a very direct, unique legislative solution to the math problem presented by the Supreme Court decision.
Independent commissions offer a limited solution. It takes the politicians out of the business of drawing their own districts. But it leaves single-member, winner-takes-all in place. And in some ways that's the root of the problem that we have.
It is. When you have single-member districts and plurality voting, it inevitably leads to a highly polarized two-party system. When you move to multi-member districts with ranked-choice, you’re far more likely to ensure everybody has a voice at the table.
For example, my city of Alexandria has city-wide, at large elections for a six-member city council. Because they don’t use ranked-choice, every single one of the six is a Democrat. You could literally have a 51/49 city and have every member of the council be in that 51 percent party, which is wrong. If you did ranked-choice, it would be 4-2, or 3-3.
That sounds at once more proportional and more representative.
It’s a lot fairer. I'm a left of center Democrat. But my Republican friends in Alexandria have no voice other than what we Democrats allow them to have. And this is true for Republicans in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and for Democrats in an awful lot of places like Kansas and Utah.
The other really interesting thing is our friend Justin Amash, who is one of the most principled members of Congress, a Libertarian, has been a Republican for most of his adult life. He recently left the Republican party over the president's behavior. He felt the Republican party was violating his principles. Well, right now, he's likely to go into a permanent involuntary retirement. But with multi-member districts and ranked-choice voting, he'd be a very viable candidate in Michigan, representing a perspective that maybe only 20 or 30 percent of the voters like -- but they would then have a voice.
Single-member districts let the base drive, even if it's off the cliff. Low-turnout primaries become the decisive election, and that determines the winner in a district skewed toward one party or the other.
I think that’s right. The votes on the Hill end up being very tribal. In the Virginia senate, 30 years ago when I was there, people had crossover votes all the times. Republicans voting for Democratic bills, Democrats voting for Republican bills. Now it doesn’t happen much. Part of it is, in a single-member district, the penalty for voting with the other side is high. This forces voters to become even more extreme than they might normally be. It’s true on both sides.
You need 218 votes for this, and I’m guessing that right now most of the targets are within your own party. I’m calling from Massachusetts, where the delegation includes nine Democrats and zero Republicans. If we moved to a fair representation system, that delegation might include six Democrats, two Republicans and an independent or third-party winner. So how do you pass this, when you have to convince a Massachusetts Democrat to embrace a system that could lead to two or three fewer seats for their side...
I know, I know, I know.
...One of which could be theirs.
It's very hard. But ranked-choice voting has been picking up across the country. I brought up RCV with my Virginia assembly delegation the other night and three or four of them jumped up and said, “That’s my bill!” It’s happening nationwide.
Multi-member districts are harder. Number one, because we’re appealing to people who are not yet elected, like Republicans and Massachusetts, and we’re unappealing to people who say, “That’s my seat!” So maybe when we pass it, we say it’s 10 years before it kicks in.
How would you say the environment has changed in Congress with regards to questions of electoral and political reform? It used to be that members told me that they felt they couldn’t talk about gerrymandering or electoral reforms, or else voters would think they were whining about wonky procedural rules instead of getting things done. That’s not the case any longer.
I think so too. Everybody, on both sides, by the way, complains about gerrymandering and argues that we need to do something about it. If you're a Republican in Massachusetts or Maryland, if you're a Democrat in Ohio or North Carolina, it hurts everybody. (laughs) Well, except for the people it helps. There is a mood for change and reform. HR-1, which was the first bill that we passed that John Sarbanes led on, has a lot of really dramatic changes in it.
Of course, Mitch McConnell's going to kill it in any way he can, but some pieces of it will pass over the next year and a half. In the not too distant future, sometime while we're still young, it will become law in America. And that's dramatic in terms of voter suppression and gerrymandering and the role of money in politics. So I think there's a... It's still a fairly healthy appetite. And as we get more progressives in Congress, I think we get more people that are willing and ready for change.
Do you worry that democracy itself has become a political football?
I don't know if I have enough of a historical perspective, but I do think it feels more broken than it ever has. We've done some critical reforms in the House. For example, Republicans limit committee chairs to six years, which Democrats should do, so that you get some turnover in leadership. We've now done this deal where if you get a sufficient number of signatures, a bill will automatically be taken up on the floor. That gives you a constructive way to get around committee chairs who bottle things up.
I think the next step that the Senate has to do is get rid of the filibuster. Or return the filibuster to its original use, which is if David's willing to stand up and speak for 72 hours or 90 hours or something, great. But the notion that you can just phone it in, that everything has to have 60 votes in order to even be considered, is crazy, especially in a polarized world. You'll just never get 60 votes on anything.
It also seems as if there are some states actively working to expand access to the polls, and other states actively building barriers. That seems like the best argument for why Congress absolutely has to step in here with a national bill, rather than individual states passing commissions, or some state supreme courts halting the worst gerrymanders while others allow them to slide.
It's just easier. With individual states, you're going to get those most enlightened states to do it, and the least enlightened not.
Massachusetts is not going to jump if Kansas doesn't.
Right, right. It's tough. And certainly, our leadership would say, "Don't give up three Democrat seats and we're not going to condemn ourselves to minority status out of our enlightenment.
So is Congress up to the task? In Roberts’ decision last month, he writes that this is a political issue, and Congress retains the ability to reform it. He notes that there have been all of these bills filed over many years. A lot of us read that in agony: There are all these bills because none of them pass! Which is one reason why the role of the courts seemed so essential in policing this conflict of interest. Can politicians solve this problem, especially now without the possibility of a Supreme Court decision?
Honest answer, I don't know. If we had a national referendum at the federal level, like Switzerland, yes, we could fix it. But that would be the people overcoming the politicians.
In the meantime, given what we have, I think it becomes the responsibility of the growing numbers of members of Congress who believe this is the right way to evolve our republic, make our democracy stronger, just keep fighting for it. We started saying, "Okay, this may be a 20-year challenge." We're making progress. More and more people understand.
When I first started talking about this a couple of years ago, it was just head shaking, "What are you talking about?" But we're getting there. And we need to continue to elect ever more people who understand. By the way, I think even Republicans would really appreciate it if they could ever get to it.
We all have to be in this together. I think it's building the political will little by little. Not unlike what we're doing on guns, what we're doing on immigration, all the big difficult issues where there aren't any easy answers that everyone agrees on. I think it's really essential. If the voters don't care, then the elected officials aren't going to care. The civic engagement has to be noisy and engaged.