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The Biggest Problem in American Politics
Forget gerrymandering. Here's what we need to fix to ensure truly fair elections.By Reihan Salam
Photo by Eric Thayer/Reuters
As a conservative living in New York City, my vote for Congress is essentially a socially approved form of venting. A short while ago, I moved from an extremely liberal neighborhood in Manhattan to an extremely liberal neighborhood in Brooklyn. In my old apartment, I was represented by Jerrold Nadler, an extremely liberal Democrat. In 2012, he defeated his Republican opponent, the redoubtable Michael Chan, by a margin of 69.8 percent to 16.6 percent. In my new home, I am represented by Nydia Velázquez, also an extremely liberal Democrat. She trounced her Conservative Party opponent, James Murray, by 79 percent to 4.4 percent in 2012. More depressing still, Murray was crushed by blank ballots, which accounted for more than 16 percent of the total. Something tells me that Velázquez is not losing sleep over her re-election bid.
To be sure, had I moved to Staten Island or Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, I would have found myself in the congressional district of Michael Grimm, a colorful Republican who likes to mix it up with the press. But Grimm is considered one of the most endangeredincumbents in the House, thanks in no small part to, um, a 20-count federal indictment relating to, among other things, his alleged mismanagement of his old health food store, Healthalicious. (You know, the usual.) There is an excellent chance that in a few months' time, New York City's congressional delegation will consist entirely of Democrats.
None of this should come as a shock. New York City is a liberal town, and I've long since resigned myself to being part of a small political minority. What I find galling is that, as observed in May by Rob Richie, the executive director of the electoral reform group FairVote, there are actually quite a few conservatives in New York City—believe it or not, Mitt Romney won 435,000 votes here. If Grimm goes down in November, Republicans in New York City will have no representation at the national level, an outcome that Richie rightly sees as a reflection of a much larger problem.
I don't expect you to weep for the Big Apple's hearty band of unreconstructed Reaganites, as we are, after all, free to pick up stakes and move to Wyoming. Yet the problem we face—that our political influence doesn't match our numbers—is one faced by many groups, including liberals in conservative parts of the country, and members of racial, ethnic, and other minorities who want and consistently fail to get their fair share of political power. The root of the problem, as Richie and the good people at FairVote have long maintained, lies in our reliance on single-member districts to elect legislators.
What's wrong with single-member districts? Let's start with gerrymandering, the practice in which the officials charged with drawing the boundaries of our various legislative districts do so with an eye toward boosting the members of a particular political party or group. There are many people who believe that gerrymandering is the root of all evil in American political life, and that we need to draw districts in an entirely apolitical manner. That is a fantasy. As long as we have single-member districts, it is inevitable that some group of people will be disadvantaged by the lines we draw, whether or not the line-drawers have sinister motives.
Take the problem of Democratic underrepresentation in the House. If we assume that the parties should win congressional seats roughly in proportion to their share of the vote, Democrats in 2012 were underrepresented by a whopping 18 seats, according toan analysis by Christopher Ingraham. In Pennsylvania, for example, Democratic candidates won just more than 50 percent of the vote in the 2012 congressional elections while winning just five of the state's 18 congressional districts.
Nate Cohn of the New York Times' Upshot has written that while partisan gerrymandering has indeed given Republicans an edge in holding the House of Representatives, the deeper problem is that Democrats are highly concentrated in densely populated urban and suburban districts, like those in and around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. By contrast, Republicans are, as a general rule, more evenly distributed across the map, which allows them to win more rural Pennsylvania districts with smaller margins. Slate's David Weigel has replied, reasonably enough, that there is an easy workaround to the fact that Democrats like to live cheek-by-jowl: simply carve up the cities in which they live and parcel them out across different congressional districts that also include less densely populated Republican territory. But this approach seems like just another way to institutionalize unfairness. If we wind up with pizza-slice districts that distribute Democrats into a larger number of heterogeneous districts, Republicans will complain that their voices have been squelched.
If our goal is to create legislative districts that truly reflect their electorates, our best bet would be to give up on single-member districts altogether and replace them with multi-member ones. Take the case of my tribe, the forlorn conservatives of New York City. Even if the New York state Legislature decided that it wanted to carve out a new district to represent conservatives scattered across the five boroughs, and not just those in Michael Grimm's swing district, they'd have an almost impossible time doing so. For one thing, we don't all live in a heavily Republican enclave called "Giulianiville." A similar problem arises for minority groups that aren't isolated in particular neighborhoods. The only reason it is possible to draw majority-minority districts for blacks in the Deep South and some Northern and Western cities is that black segregation is still with us. Drawing majority-minority districts for less-segregated minorities, like Asians, is a different story. (The only Asian-majority congressional district in the United States is in Hawaii, though there is one district in California's Silicon Valley that comes close.)
When you combine single-member districts into bigger multi-member districts, the picture starts to look quite different. The beauty of multi-member districts is that they allow us to use what FairVote calls "fair representation voting." (FairVote is stacking the deck a bit with that terminology, admittedly.) There are several different forms of fair representation voting, but FairVote is a fan of "ranked choice voting," a method that has been used in Ireland and, closer to home, Cambridge, Massachusetts, for decades. Under that system, voters rank-order several different candidates rather than choosing their single favorite. Here's an excellent video from Minnesota Public Radio explaining how it works:
As FairVote explains, the goal of this approach is to ensure that all candidates who receive a certain share of the vote will be elected. Some countries have huge multi-member districts that elect dozens of legislators. Israel elects all 120 members of the Knesset in a single multi-member district that encompasses the entire country. This guarantees that even very small groups can elect a representative who reflects their interests, yet it also severs the connection between a legislator and a given region. In the United States, FairVote envisions multi-member districts that would send no more than five representatives to Congress—big enough to represent relatively small minorities, but not so big that they don't have a connection to concrete communities.
In a district with three representatives, you'd need to win 25 percent of the vote plus 1 to get elected. In a district with five reps, you'd need to win 16.7 percent plus 1. Getting there is a bit complicated—it involves fractions. But the basic idea is that if there were a three-seat multi-member district in Texas in which 68 percent of the vote went to Republican candidates and 32 percent went to Democratic candidates, one of the scenarios FairVote offers in "Monopoly Politics 2014 and the Fair Voting Solution," it would send two Republicans and one Democrat to Congress. Of course, fair representation voting won't do much good in states that send only one member to Congress. The good it would do everywhere else, however, is reason enough to justify the idea.
It should be obvious why multi-member districts would appeal to Democrats, who really are disadvantaged by the status quo. But it should appeal to Republicans, too. Yes, it would deny the GOP an edge over Democrats in the short term. But at the same time, it would help stranded conservatives like myself, and it would guarantee that some political reversal of fortune wouldn't one day result in Republican underrepresentation.
There is an even better reason to favor fair representation voting: It might fuel the rise of new political parties. Getting to 50 percent can be challenging for Greens or Libertarians or other minor-party candidates who are asking voters to make a leap of faith. Getting to 17 percent in a multi-member district is far more realistic
Imagine if Netroots Democrats or Tea Party Republicans made an impact not by launching primary challenges but by setting up shop as separate political entities. Instead of dragging the major parties to the left or to the right, they'd be able to compete with them on a level playing field. It'd be a bit like the startup world, where venture-backed entrepreneurs routinely take on entrenched incumbents. Don't think your local Democrats are liberal enough? Vote Netroots! Tired of GOP squishes? Back the Tea Party!
Not everyone likes the idea of a multi-party system, I realize. There is a neat symmetry to two-party politics, and it is true that our big, lumbering parties are capable of change, albeit at a slow pace. Yet it's hard to deny that a two-party system is best understood as a zero-sum game, in which a victory for one party is seen as a defeat for the other. This makes meaningful cross-party cooperation vanishingly rare. A multi-party system, in contrast, is one in which your enemy on one issue might become your ally on another. Netrooters might fight Tea Partiers tooth and nail on the top marginal tax rate one day while working alongside them to curb crony capitalism the next. They might join with Democrats on one issue and Libertarians on the next. This ever-present need for coalition-building creates a powerful incentive to treat your political rivals with respect, even when you disagree with them. That would make for a much healthier political culture—and certainly a more interesting one.
Reihan Salam is a columnist for Slate.__,_._,___