Rethinking Congress: A revolutionary plan to make it more responsive
A year away from the 2014 elections, most of California's congressional races already have been decided. Even though California used a Citizens Redistricting Commission to draw its districts and uses a Top Two system to elect its members of Congress, very few of its voters will have a meaningful choice next November.
FairVote's Monopoly Politics 2014 projects 36 of California's 53 districts to be won by at least 20 percent next year, and only nine districts to be seriously contested by the non-incumbent party. Even though Top Two created some intraparty general election runoffs in 2012, nearly all still were won in a landslide, and evidence from Washington State suggests that parties may adapt to Top Two to discourage such intraparty competition in the future.
The same is true nationwide: FairVote projects winners in 373 of 435 congressional districts. That means more than 85 percent of seats are so safe that nothing in the upcoming year will change the outcome. Using the same methodology last year, FairVote was correct in all 333 of our projections. There was more turnover due to redistricting, but now most incumbents are even more entrenched.
Here's an even more startling finding. Due to a combination of partisan gerrymandering, incumbency advantages, declines in ticket-splitting and the concentration of Democratic voters in urban areas, House Republicans likely would keep their majority with as little as 45 percent of the national vote in 2014.
This creates an obvious disadvantage for Democrats, but it hurts Republicans too. Because almost all House incumbents only fear primary challenges, they move further from the center. Republicans can ignore changes in the electorate, making it harder to win the White House and Senate.
Most importantly, unaccountable congressional leadership means dysfunctional government.
But we could reform Congress with ranked-choice voting in multiseat districts. Used in many nations and American cities, ranked-choice voting allows voters to indicate their preferences. When used to elect several candidates, it guarantees more diverse representation than our winner-take-all elections in which a handful of primary voters decides everyone's representation.
As shown in our 50-state plan at FairVoting.us, the House would be the same size but would be elected from a smaller number of multiseat districts. Each voter would have one potent vote in elections for between three and five representatives, according to the district's population.
Our plan for California's congressional elections creates 15 super districts, each with three or five seats according to population. With ranked-choice voting in the primary and the general election, the parties would become more diverse and less rigid. In a typical election, Democrats would win 32 to 33 seats and Republicans 20 to 21 -- a fairer reflection of California's voters. Far more voters, including racial minorities and women, would be able to earn fair representation, and there would be no talk of spoilers.
Most states already have used multiseat districts to elect members of Congress or state legislators, but in 1967 Congress mandated single-seat House districts. Before the next round of redistricting in 2021, Congress should pass a law requiring all states to use ranked-choice voting in multiseat districts drawn by independent commissions. California could reform its state legislative elections even sooner.
With ranked-choice voting, we could restore the founders' vision of a truly representative and accountable People's House. It's time to achieve the reform that truly would put voters in charge in every election.
Rob Richie is executive director and Devin McCarthy is a policy analyst at FairVote, a nonpartisan organization based in Maryland. They wrote this for this newspaper.