Looking Back on 18 Years of Monopoly Politics

Posted by Andrew Douglas on July 23, 2015
This week marks the 18th anniversary of the initial release of Monopoly Politics, FairVote’s innovative biennial report on the deep flaws in our current system for electing representatives to the U.S. House, and the potential of fair representation voting systems to overcome these problems and ensure that every American can cast a meaningful vote in every election. Released in July of 1997, the first edition of the report introduced our district partisanship metric for estimating the underlying partisan leaning of congressional districts, and our unique election projection methodology, which, using only district partisanship and recent election results, has allowed us to make projections in the majority of districts in elections since, with almost perfect accuracy. The predictive power of partisanship illustrates the issue that lies at the heart of many of the problems with our electoral system: in the vast majority of districts, one party has a monopoly on representation such that the outcome of general elections is essentially predetermined.


District partisanship is designed to measure the baseline partisan preferences of voters in a district, in the absence of the contest- and candidate-specific factors that vary from one election to the next. It is calculated by comparing the major party presidential candidates’ shares of the vote in a district with their share of the vote nationwide. The closer the presidential election’s outcome in a district is to the outcome of the national popular vote, the closer the district’s partisanship will be to an even split between the parties.


In 1997, Monopoly Politics proved district partisanship to be a very powerful predictor of electoral outcomes. At a time in which the lack of competition in House elections was blamed largely on the effects of incumbency, and conventional wisdom held (as it often still does) that campaign finance was a critical determinant of electoral success, partisanship was shown to be a better predictor of election results than any candidate-specific factor, including incumbents’ previous electoral performance and campaign spending.

The predictive power of partisanship has allowed FairVote to develop a highly accurate model for projecting House elections. In Monopoly Politics 2012 we made projections in 333 U.S. House districts, all of which were correct. In 2014, we made projectionsin 368 districts, missing only one. Two days after the 2014 elections, we released our projections for 2016, predicting outcomes in a record 373 districts.


In these 373 districts, which elect more than 85% of U.S. representatives, one party has monopolized electoral politics so completely that outcomes can be known with near certainty two years ahead of the election. As our projections in 1997 first illustrated, this utter lack of competition is the natural result of an electoral environment in which Americans have become more partisan, and have geographically sorted themselves into pockets of mostly like-minded liberal and conservative voters, combined with our system of winner-take-all elections in which just one legislator is elected to represent every voter in each district.


As Monopoly Politics 2014 explains, this dynamic is at the root of several major problems with American elections. Our elections are not only predictable, but also unrepresentative. In a system like ours, a district’s minority party can consistently win 10% of the vote, or 40% of the vote, without any impact on the election’s outcome. Voters who vote for a losing candidate are left unrepresented. As a result, we are often left with disproportionate outcomes, as was the case in 2012, when Democratic candidates earned the majority of votes in U.S. elections, but Republicans won the majority of seats. Our system also exaggerates the polarization of American voters, leading to a less effective Congress; when candidates can be certain of their victory, they have little incentive to reach out to moderates or voters from the other side, and are instead beholden to the small and particularly partisan group of voters that nominated them in their party’s primary.


From the beginning, however, Monopoly Politics has presented a solution to these problems: fair representation voting. By combining districts so that each elects three to five representatives, and those representatives are elected using a proportional system like multi-seat ranked choice voting, fair representation voting would ensure that voters across the country participate in meaningful elections, that outcomes represent voters true preferences, and the broad spectrum of American’s political views is accurately reflected in Congress. FairVote’s plan for electing the U.S. House under a fair representation voting system, along with the most recent Monopoly Politics report, can be found at fairvoting.us.
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