Polarization

A sharp increase in partisan rigidity in Americans’ voting patterns has led to less competitive state and national elections and more predictable outcomes based on which party is in the majority. Fewer legislators fear losing in general elections, and fewer still can win in the other party’s “turf.” Third parties and independents are shut out almost entirely.

These factors combine to mean elections are largely in the hands of primary voters, who are decreasing in number and increasing in hardcore partisan views. The result is more legislative bodies with perfect partisan polarization: every Democrat is rated as more liberal than every Republican, and being a “bridgebuilder” — that is, engaging in high-profile cooperation with representatives of the other party — can lead directly to a primary challenge. America’s constitutional system of governance is based on compromise. When polarization causes that to break down, policymaking can grind to a halt or swing wildly based on which party has majority control.

Addressing polarization

The key to addressing polarization at a state and national level requires changes to key statutory laws for how elections are held and the structural rules for legislative chambers. Check out our resources:

Ranked Choice Voting Monopoly Politics RCV Act for Congress

Click on a topic to begin.

Key Facts

  • Near-perfect partisan polarization in Georgia: The state legislature had 236 seats up for election in 2014. All but two seats were won by candidates of the same party whose presidential nominee carried the district in 2012.

  • Winner-take-all domination in Arizona: Arizona has public financing and independent redistricting; however, all but three of its 90 state legislators elected in 2014 are of the same party as the presidential nominee who carried the district in 2012. Only two districts were won by a presidential candidate by less than 8%.

  • Uncontested elections: More than one in three state legislative elections were won by a candidate who did not face a single opponent. In November 2014, more than two years before the November 2016 congressional elections, FairVote made its final projections for U.S. House winners in six out of every seven districts.

  • Vanishing moderates and “crossover” Members of Congress: In 1992, 116 House Members represented districts carried by the other major party’s nominee. That declined to 26 after 2012. It is no accident the number of House Members classified as having moderate voting behaviors declined from 129 in 1992 to only 12 in 2012.

Reform Innovations

The polarization crisis can be resolved without resorting to constitutional changes. FairVote’s proposals that most directly speak to this problem zero in on key statutory laws for how we hold elections and how we structure rules in legislative chambers:

  • U.S. House Elections and State Legislatures: We are building support for the Fair Representation Act. It would make three key changes:

    1. Require all House Members to be elected by ranked choice voting, which creates incentives for them to reach out to more voters in the general election in order to win;
    2. Require all states with more than one Member to use multi-winner districts that gives voters the power to elect representatives for the left, center and right (including Democrats and Republicans) in every district;
    3. Draw districts with independent redistricting commissions. 

State legislatures also would benefit from ranked choice voting, ideally in multi-winner districts.

  • Elections for Governor and U.S. Senate: We support ranked choice voting in these elections.

  • Legislative Rules: We support rules that give every legislator a voice, such as ensuring every bill gets a committee hearing, every bill with a basic level of support gets a floor vote, and every chamber leader is elected in a secret ballot by the whole chamber, not just one party’s caucus. 

Deep Dive: Disappearing "Crossover Legislators" Key to Resolving the Shutdown

Not only are crossover representatives disappearing, but the number of districts that are at all competitive has also drastically declined. In over 80% of congressional districts there is essentially no chance of victory for a candidate from the party in the minority in 2014. This lack of competition not only prevents the election of crossover legislators, but ensures that the candidates who are elected need only be concerned with the views of their partisan primary voters, who become the de facto electorate.

Though declining competition in U.S. House races is often blamed on redistricting and partisan gerrymandering, it has more to do with demographic forces and the self-sorting of Americans into pockets of like-minded voters than with partisan attempts to manipulate the electoral landscape. More than ever before, Democratic voters are concentrated in urban areas, while conservatives are in the majority outside of cities. This divide means that no matter how district lines are drawn, winner-take-all House elections will remain uncompetitive and generate an artificially polarized chamber. That is why half-measures like independent redistricting are insufficient for addressing the underlying forces that have broken Congress and led to the shutdown.

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