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A Real Path to "Post-Partisanship"

by David Segal // Published April 30, 2009

Notwithstanding a presidential campaign peppered with hopeful rhetoric about bipartisanship -- and even "post-partisanship" -- Republican and Democratic leaders appear as mutually antagonistic as ever, with Congress's approval rating hovering around 30%.

We should not be surprised: Particular electoral structures tend to yield particular political textures, and it's difficult to imagine a form of elections that foments more partisanship, more atmospheric tension, and more concern for party stripe above policy, than does the winner-take-all system that we use to elect Congress and nearly all other offices in the United States. As popular sentiment is filtered through the prism that is our electoral system -- especially as we confront difficult times, following on the heels of a divisive presidential election -- a hyper-partisan Congress is an inevitable result.

But it need not be this way. Matthew Yglesias rightfully recently pointed to the proportional voting as a potential solution.

Americans are surely weary of political bickering -- argumentation defined largely along party lines, underlied by empty sound bites and posturing, in attempts to win cheap points at the expense of one's political antagonists. It's the stuff we're used to, and the sort of partisanship that we desperately want to move beyond.

But we are far less weary of genuine issue-based debate -- for among other reasons, because there's been so damned little of it in contemporary mainstream politics. In fact, Americans actively yearn for issue-focused discourse, with participants engaged in good faith, driven foremost by concern for the welfare of the populace. This sort of partisanship is desirable: It allows for the interaction and evolution of ideas, and is a mechanism by which society can achieve genuine progress.

Non-partisanship needn't equate to centrism -- it mustn't mean compromising at the precise middle point between political poles, issue after issue. Overwhelming majorities of Americans already support some form of universal health care, a progressive tax code, much greater investment in renewable energy, corporate accountability -- and we need an electoral system that allows coalitions to be built across party lines to achieve these kinds of popular goals. Winner-take-all elections simply don't fit that bill.

The answer, at least in part, is proportional representation, whereby we can come closest to electing a body of representatives who hold views in the same proportion as do the people who voted for them. In contrast, standard winner-take-all elections yield scenarios in which many people and viewpoints go with less representation than they are due -- winner-take-all elections exaggerate the power of the victors. An extreme example, but one that illustrates the point: If 51% of the population supported Democrats and 49% supported Republicans, with such support distributed evenly throughout every district, Democrats would win every single seat, leaving Republicans with no representation.

The optimal form of proportional representation is called the single transferable vote, or STV. STV ensures that a representative democracy is truly so that the opinions of all blocs of voters are represented, in the proportion with which those opinions are held by the voting population. It is used for a variety of elections in many Western democracies, including the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. About two-dozen U.S. cities, including New York, have used STV at various points; Cambridge, Mass., still does, and Minneapolis will starting in 2009 for certain offices. (Other jurisdictions have used other forms of proportional representation to elect a variety of offices, including Illinois, to elect its legislature until 1980.)

Here's how STV might work for congressional elections: Candidates would run in multi-member districts -- for instance, five current single-member districts could be merged to create a single, five-member super-district. Voters would head to the voting booth and rank candidates in order of preference on a standard ballot; if a voter's first choice didn't get the number of votes needed to win a seat, that voter's vote would be counted in the next round for his or her second choice, and so on -- nearly every voter will have one of his or her preferred candidates elected.

STV makes campaigns less negative -- less "partisan" in the bad sense -- by encouraging cooperation among candidates, because candidates want to vie for voters' second and third choices, and not just their first. It increases the rate at which candidates are elected based on their concern for issues, rather than party affiliation alone, facilitating bi- and multi-party cooperation in governance: Five-member super-districts in areas that are used to electing Republicans with 70% of the vote would now elect a Democrat or two. Urban areas that skew 70-30% in favor of Democrats would now elect some Republicans. So we'd have new cross-party interconnections, with more members of the GOP representing city-dwellers and people of color, and more Democrats representing the interests of rural areas. And more independents and third-party members would get elected, offering new ideas, unconstrained by traditional party allegiances and structures.

STV has other benefits too: For instance, it makes it more likely that a given individual's vote, or a given bloc of votes, will make a difference. And because of this, it tends to sharply boost participation.

In prior sessions of Congress, Representative Mel Watt has introduced legislation to permit the establishment of multi-member congressional districts, and allow for the selection of members via proportional voting methods. Under the Clinton administration, this legislation received the support of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. President Obama lectured on STV as a law professor: As his administration takes office, and as the census-triggered redistricting approaches, let's start encouraging him to follow Clinton's lead -- and help realize the "post-partisan" Congress that he envisioned during his campaign.