Posted by Drew Spencer Penrose, Nathan Nicholson on November 10, 2014
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In Ohio and Virginia, bipartisan commissions are debating sweeping reforms to state governance, including new procedures for drawing state legislative districts. FairVote has contributed testimony to both commissions urging them to consider two key policy innovations that would increase competition in every district, make legislatures more reflective of voters’ preferences, and encourage the nomination and election of women and minority candidates: multi-seat ranked choice voting and Districts Plus.
Ohio’s Constitutional Modernization Commission, tasked with gathering and reporting recommendations to the Ohio state legislature about potential amendments to the state constitution, is hotly debating the creation of a new bipartisan panel to draw districts for Ohio’s General Assembly and U.S. House delegation. But while a bipartisan or nonpartisan body can help reduce the role of parties’ self-interest in the districting process, panels like these have their limits: so long as districts are locked into electing a single winner by a simple plurality vote, no commission can overcome the inherent tradeoffs between competitiveness, compactness, and accurate reflection of the statewide electorate. FairVote’s testimony encourages Ohio to empower any district-drawing commission to consider and implement ranked-choice voting in multi-seat districts.
Under such a system, large “super districts” with up to five seats would replace current single-member districts. In a five-seat district, a threshold of about 17% support would be needed to elect a candidate; in a five-seat super district whose voters preferred Republicans to Democrats by 55% to 45%, for example, voters might elect three Republican candidates and two Democratic candidates. Multi-seat districts would thereby give representation to voters on the political left, right, and center across the state, not just those voters living in districts in which they are part of the majority bloc. And in most districts at least one seat would be competitive between the two major parties, allowing nearly all voters the chance to cast a meaningful vote – unlike in Ohio’s 2012 state legislative elections, when the winning candidate won with less than 60% of the vote in barely a third of races.
Virginia’s Commission to Ensure Integrity and Public Confidence in State Government, created by Governor Terry McAuliffe in September 2014, is tasked with drawing up recommendations for reforms to promote good governance in Virginia. Its broad policy scope includes government ethics and campaign finance in addition to procedures for legislative and congressional redistricting. After its first public forum, it received a clear message from Virginia citizens about the importance of redistricting reform.
Like Ohio, Virginia would benefit greatly from moving to multi-seat districts with ranked choice voting for its state legislative elections. As noted in FairVote’s testimony to the commission, Virginia in particular would be well positioned to reap the benefits of multi-seat districts’ effects on women’s representation: the state currently ranks at the bottom of all 50 states for women’s representation as measured by its gender parity index - a metric developed by FairVote’s Representation2020 project to describe the degree to which women are equally likely to win elected office as men - and just 23 of Virginia’s 140 state legislative seats are held by women. Multi-seat districts (both in the United States and internationally) tend to elect more women than single-member districts, and while many factors other than election methods are at play, the ten states which currently use multi-seat districts to elect at least one state legislative house rank among the highest for women’s representation in their state legislatures.
Indeed, FairVote has already developed a model plan for Virginia to demonstrate what it could look like having Virginia’s general assembly elected by ranked choice voting. It consists of 20 super districts, each electing five members of the Virginia House of Delegates and 10 super districts, each electing four members of the Virginia State Senate. With 17% of the vote needed to elect one of the five representatives to the House of Delegates in each super district and 20% need to elect one of the four state senators in each super district, Virginia could fairly represent nearly all of its constituents: left, right, and center.
FairVote’s testimony to both Ohio’s and Virginia’s reform commissions also recommended considering a Districts Plus system for the states’ legislative elections, which could be implemented separately from or in tandem with multi-seat districts with ranked choice voting. Districts Plus describes a mixed apportionment system in which most seats are still elected from districts, but a certain number of additional “accountability seats” are allotted to parties based on the share of the vote each party’s candidates received statewide (or in larger “accountability districts”). Districts Plus helps ensure that whichever party’s candidates win the most votes across the state are guaranteed a majority in the legislature. It also makes each vote more meaningful: even when a district is a lock for one party, every vote cast in that district counts towards the overall total upon which the accountability seats are awarded. This gives parties incentives to compete in every district and allows districts to be drawn with a focus on compactness and compliance with the Voting Rights Act, as some degree of competition is guaranteed. Further information on Districts Plus is available here.
It’s encouraging that Ohio and Virginia are actively seeking to modernize their legislative redistricting procedures. It’s FairVote’s hope that as part of this process, state policymakers will recognize the inherent limitations imposed by single-member, winner-take-all districts and consider reforms that would create more competitive elections, more majoritarian results, and more representative legislatures.