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Wednesday, Dec 17, 2014
Commentary

How to shake up Congress


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It’s easy to blame politicians for the federal government shutdown, but the dysfunction will continue until Americans understand how our voting laws reward confrontation and realize which steps are necessary for real reform.

Those who blame gerrymandering are on the right track but don’t go far enough. Most incumbents are entrenched in districts that are safe for their party and need only worry about primary challenges, which are dominated by highly partisan voters. House Republicans see every reason to keep opposing Barack Obama’s policies because they easily won a majority in 2012, even though more voters backed Obama and Democratic congressional candidates.

But independent redistricting would have only a modest effect on competition and partisan bias. The U.S. electorate has grown more polarized, with far less ticket-splitting and far fewer competitive states, counties and districts. House districts have skewed Republican for decades, but the increased polarization and geographic concentration of Democratic voters has made this imbalance more pronounced since 2010.

Districting, not redistricting, is the root cause of congressional dysfunction.

House members are elected in one-seat districts where the candidate with the most votes represents everyone and no members share constituents. Changes in redistricting would only marginally affect the electoral incentives that drive political dysfunction because the vast majority of districts strongly favor one party, no matter how boundaries are drawn, and party loyalists will dominate low-turnout primaries in any format.

It wasn’t always this way. Before 1840, many states elected House members in statewide elections, and two states still did so in the 1960s. In 1967, Congress mandated one-seat districts to try to prevent Southern states from adopting winner-take-all statewide elections to dilute black voting strength.

Just as it made a nationwide election change a few decades ago, Congress should ban winner-take-all rules and require states to authorize independent commissions to draw larger congressional districts of three to five representatives. Louisiana, for example, would replace its six single-member districts with two districts that each have three seats. Rather than winner-take-all rules, members could be selected by a ranked-choice voting system.

Used in mayoral elections in Minneapolis and San Francisco, this system allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. To win, candidates must surpass a minimum vote threshold — a quarter of the vote in elections for three seats and a sixth of the vote in elections for five. Some candidates might win with first-choice support alone, but most would depend on supporters of other candidates ranking them second or third, which would reward more inclusive campaigns.

We are not proposing the party-list forms of proportional representation used in many parliamentary democracies. Although highly successful in Germany and Holland, party lists would clash with U.S. political culture. Americans want Congress to reflect our differences, avoid groupthink and have more members with an electoral incentive to reach across party lines to find policy solutions.

Ranked-choice voting would restore the “big tent” parties that have traditionally made our constitutional system work. If such a system were used in primaries, nominees would better reflect each major party’s diversity of views. FairVote’s online simulation of general elections shows that every expanded district would elect representatives of both major parties, with at least one of them elected by voters likely to reward solution-oriented compromises. Minor parties and independents would no longer be “spoilers,” and Congress would again have Northeast Republicans, white Southern Democrats and other Americans who are poorly represented by today’s winner-take-all system.

In elections with one winner — such as Senate contests and House races in small states — ranked-choice voting is necessarily a majority system. But it would reward candidates who reach out to more voters, especially if major parties nominate more than one general-election candidate.

Bringing more diverse voices to Congress and having members share constituents with representatives of other parties would reduce gridlock and foster better dialogue. Illinois elected its House of Representatives with a similar system for more than a century. In 2001, a bipartisan commission co-chaired by former governor Jim Edgar, a Republican, and former state and U.S. representative Abner Mikva, a Democrat, urged its restoration, concluding that it would “generate richer deliberations and statewide consensus among all legislators.”

Many Americans — and even some legislators — would prefer such an environment to the toxicity of Capitol Hill. This sort of reform should interest those who want racial minorities to have a secure way to choose candidates without gerrymandering, those who want more women to run, and those who want all voters to have more choice and better representation. Democrats have an obvious self-interest, but so do Republicans: The GOP would become stronger in presidential elections once able to compete and win in all congressional districts.

Partisan gridlock has put the vision of our Founders at risk, but only if we fail to update it for modern politics. Let’s begin with ranked-choice voting for Congress.

Rob Richie is executive director and Devin McCarthy is a policy analyst at FairVote, a nonpartisan organization based in Takoma Park, Md.

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