FairVote's Top Ten List: The Breakdown of Winner-Take-All Elections

by Andrea Levien // Published April 26, 2013
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Want the facts faster? Take a look at this one-pager on our top 10 indicators of the breakdown of winner-take-all.

Geography has become an increasingly rigid indicator of which political party will win a state or legislative district in the United States. Voters are far more likely to vote only for candidates from a single political party, and to vote for that same party from election to election. When there is a shift in an area's underlying partisanship, it is now more likely to be away from the national political center than towards it.

The end results of these trends include:

- A Congress that is more partisan in its voting behavior than at any time in recent history, and legislative leaders who consistently use every procedural tool available to dominate the opposing party when in the majority, or to obstruct it when in the minority.

- A partisan voting consistency that means less ticket splitting in votes for president, Congress, and state elections.

- A pattern of majority domination that removes that vast majority of states from the battleground in presidential elections. This pattern incentivizes candidates to allocate more than 99% of their attention and resources on courting voters in just 10 states.

- A partisan consistency in congressional districts that makes it difficult for either party to make gains in the House outside of a shrinking band of competitive districts. The vast majority of incumbents are secure in their districts and do not have to worry about reelection.

Top political analysts have been addressing these trends, including the Washington Post's Dan Balz, the Cook Political Report's Charlie Cook and Crystal Ball's Rhodes Cook. But one factor consistently overlooked by these analysts is that this partisan gridlock can be remedied with a simple change in electoral rules. By doing away with winner-take-all voting laws, by which 50% + 1 of the vote earns 100% of representation in a single state or district, political polarization could be substantially remedied, and voters would find themselves more accurately represented in their legislative bodies.

Many people wring their hands over how district lines are drawn, highlight the dangers of voting laws designed to reduce voter participation, or bemoan the role of money in politics. But however important these issues may be, they collectively have a minor effect on electoral outcomes when contrasted with the overwhelming power of winner-take-all voting rules. Under winner-take-all, once a candidate in a race for a congressional seat or a state in a presidential race has a partisan balance three percentage points or more away from the national vote, the odds of a victory for supporters of the minority party plunge.

Once an area's partisanship is six percent or more away from the national vote, any party shift is nearly impossible.

Fortunately, we can ditch the winner-take-all voting laws that have impaired our electoral process for far too long. With simple changes to federal and state statutes, the US can be on its way to better and fairer elections. The United States has a long history of using different voting rules that would, absent any other changes, dramatically improve elections, representation, and legislative behavior. To underscore the urgency of consideration of these reforms, FairVote has made a list of the top ten biggest indicators that winner-take-all elections have contributed to the polarization and stagnation that plagues our political process.

Definition of terms:

A swing state or congressional district is one that voted within three points of the national popular vote for president (47%-53% partisanship), meaning that their partisanship leaning is similar to the nation's as a whole. Presidential elections in states and congressional elections in districts (especially if there is an open seat or a first-term incumbent) within this partisanship band are likely to be competitive in a nationally competitive election. 

A safe state or congressional district is one that voted at least 8 percentage points more Democratic or Republican than the national popular vote for president (42%-58% partisanship). Barring a landslide election for one party nationally, there is virtually no chance that any of these states or districts held by the majority party will be won by the minority party.

Presidential Elections

1. Decreasing state competition: In 1988, safe states collectively held only 40 electoral votes. In 2012, they held 247 electoral votes. During that time the number of electoral votes held by swing states shrunk by nearly half, from 272 to 140.  

2. Consistent voting patterns: Between 2000 and 2012, 41 states voted for the same party in every presidential election. In both 2008 and 2012, 35 of these states received less than 1/100th of the attention from the presidential campaigns that they would have received if every state received attention in proportion to its population.

3. More partisan rigidity: The number of states where partisanship shifted by five or more percentage points between elections has decreased from an average of 23 states between 1960 and 1976 to an average of three between 2000 and 2012.

Congressional Elections

4. Decreasing district competition: Between 1998 and 2012, the number of swing districts decreased from 121 to 47. There are now 284 safe congressional districts, up from 179 in 1998.

5. Increasing dominance of partisanship over local factors: Only six incumbents remain in seats that favored the other party by a margin of more than eight percentage points in the 2012 presidential election, down from 34 such incumbents after the 2006 election and down from 47 after the 1992 election. In 2012, neither party took a seat away from the other party in a district that favored the opposing party by more than eight percentage points. Only six percent of districts (26) voted for different parties for president and Congress in 2012.

6. More partisan rigidity: Comparing partisanship in current congressional districts based on the 2008 presidential elections and 2012 presidential elections, only 30 districts (7%) experienced a partisanship shift of five or more percentage points - and all but four of those districts trended in the direction of the previous majority party, making them less competitive.

7. More regional domination: In 2012, large areas of the nation were dominated by one party. Democrats swept all 21 House seats in New England while Republicans won all 22 seats in the belt of states running from Arkansas through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. In 1992, Republicans held 10 House seats in New England and Democrats held 14 House seats in this line of midwestern and western states.

8. More racial connection to partisanship: White Republicans represent 66 of 70 majority-white U.S. House districts in the adjoining nine states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. In 1991, 50 white Democrats represented these states, nearly all in white majority districts.

State Elections

9. More monopoly-controlled states: In 38 states, one party controls the governor's mansion and both state legislative houses - and the presidential candidate from the same party won 31 of those states in 2012. This is the largest number of states with one-party-monopoly governments since World War II.

10. More partisan rigidity: In North Carolina's 2012 elections for its 120-seat House of Representatives, 119 seats were won by the candidate with a partisan advantage in his or her district. In New Jersey's first election since its new two-member legislative districts were drawn by a commission in 2011, all 40 assembly districts elected two members of the same party.

As we can see, the phrase "all politics is local" has been replaced with "all politics is partisan."  To see how we can fix presidential, congressional, and state legislative elections, visit

Presidential Elections: www.fairvote.org/national-popular-vote

Congressional Elections: www.fairvoting.us

Have your own favorite example of winner-take-all breakdown? Send it to us at [email protected].