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No More Gerrymanders: Congressional Representation in the Seven At-Large States

by Sheahan Virgin, Fair Voting Plans // Published January 3, 2012

All across the nation, lawmakers are engaged in a grand political game - decennial congressional redistricting - designed to benefit party elites rather than the people. Already, a number of states have passed controversial, opportunistic maps in which elected officials have chosen their voters before voters have chosen them. Redistricting, when combined with a winner-take-all rule in which 50% + 1 of the district vote guarantees 100% of representation, not only leaves substantial voting blocs unrepresented, but it reduces the vast majority of U.S. House elections to ceremonial, uncompetitive contests, in which voters are asked not to elect but to ratify the decisions party elites have already taken.

To address these problems, FairVote, as part of an ongoing series, has proposed state-specific "super-district" plans designed for elections with a proportional representation system, which we call "fair voting." Rather than use a winner-take-all rule, which accentuates the unfair effects of redistricting and encourages partisan games, FairVote has combined winner-take-all, gerrymandered districts to form multi-member super-districts. When using a fair voting system in these larger districts, every voter in every election will have a meaningful choice in a competitive contest and will be more likely to earn fair representation - a representative balance likely to include a winner from both major parties and occasionally a third party or independent candidate.

Winner-Take-All Plagues Seven At-Large States: However, in a handful of states, the partisan jockeying that is congressional redistricting does not occur. In each of these seven states - Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, Delaware, and Vermont - just one member of Congress runs at-large across the entire state, meaning that controversies over redistricting occur only on the state legislative level. Rather than redrawing districts every ten years as the 43 other states must in order to maintain equal populations in each district, an at-large district's borders are fixed.

Though spared the controversies of congressional redistricting, winner-take-all rules still plague at-large states. By design, winner-take-all elections reduce millions of voters to irrelevancy, either because they live in a district that widely favors one party or because they vote for a candidate in a competitive constituency who falls short. Nowhere are the shortcomings of our voting system more acute than in at-large, winner-take-all races, where one individual is - rather astonishingly - responsible for representing the political and demographic diversity of an entire state. That this occurs in the U.S. House, the chamber of the national legislature that is by definition intended to reflect the complexities and vicissitudes of public opinion, is even more alarming. Americans forms of proportional representation, by contrast, would alleviate these problems.

When taken as a whole, FairVote's state-specific fair voting plans will achieve a U.S. House much more reflective of the nation's partisan and racial composition than what is possible under gerrymandered, winner-take-all contests - and, even more importantly, make every voter's participation meaningful in every election. Since these at-large states are locked in at one seat apiece, however, our construction of multi-seat super-districts is impossible under the U.S. House's current structure. For fair voting plans to be feasible in at-large states, one of two changes would need to occur: either a statutory change to federal law in order to expand the U.S. House beyond 435 seats (as was done regularly until 1910), which would give each of the at-large states at least two representatives, or a constitutional amendment allowing states to join with others to form interstate congressional districts.

Recent Winner-Take-All Elections in At-Large States: That said, it is informative to look at these states' recent congressional election results, in order to understand the degree to which winner-take-all has polluted the political waters. Racially, the at-large states are predominantly white (81.0%), with blacks (4.6%), Latinos (4.5%), and Native Americans (5.4%) all comprising roughly the same share of the combined population. Delaware is the only state with a significant black population (20.8%), while Alaska (14.4%) and South Dakota (8.5%) both contain an appreciable number of Native Americans.

With just one seat in each at-large state, racial minorities have had no chance to elect a preferred candidate who can't also draw significant support from white voters; unsurprisingly, none of the seven states have ever sent a racial minority candidate to Congress. The problem, of course, is not simply that these states lack multiple congressional districts in each of these states; rather, winner-take-all systems naturally struggle to reflect accurately the demographic composition of districts. Conversely, proportional systems lower the threshold of support necessary for like-minded voters in a minority group to help elect candidates of choice. 

In terms of partisanship, all of the at-large states have partisanship index ratings that give a clear tilt toward one major party over the other. In other words, seven of seven seats are uphill battles for the other political party in House races to the point that at least in presidential races, the contests essentially are over before they start.

Vermont and Delaware, with respective Democratic Party partisanship indexes of 64.9% and 58.9%, have backed the  Democratic candidate in every presidential election since 1992. Of the other five states - Wyoming (30.3% Democratic partisanship), Alaska (35.6%), North Dakota (42.1%), South Dakota (42.2%), and Montana (45.2%) - all except Montana have voted Republican in every presidential election since 1968, and even then, the Big Sky Country gave only 37.6% to Bill Clinton in 1992, with independent Ross Perot earning 26.1% of the vote. Although the minority party has had some successes in these states' House races, all of them today are in line with their partisan leanings. 

Partisanship Breakdown in the At-Large States

At-Large
State

Population

Partisanship (D)

Safe Seats (D)

Leaning Seats (D)


  Toss-Up

Leaning Seats (R)

Safe Seats (R)

AK

710,231

35.60%

0

0

0

0

1

MT

989,415

45.23%

0

0

0

1

0

WY

563,626

30.25%

0

0

0

0

1

SD

814,180

42.16%

0

0

0

1

0

ND

672,591

42.05%

0

0

0

1

0

DE

897,934

58.86%

1

0

0

0

0

VT

625,741

64.87%

1

0

0

0

0

Totals

5,273,718

-

2

0

0

3

2

*Partisanship percentages are based on an interpretation of vote totals in the 2008 presidential election. The seats are defined according to the following ranges: toss-up districts have a partisanship rating between 46% and 54%, leaning seats have a partisanship between 54% and 58%, and safe seats have a partisanship greater than 58%. Our projections do not take into account incumbent advantages but reflect the underlying partisanship leanings of each district.

At the congressional level, some at-large states have shown more competitiveness than their partisanship rating would suggest - likely a holdover of the more fluid political realities of the last century. For instance, Republican Mike Castle represented Delaware for nine terms until leaving the House in 2010 to run - unsuccessfully - for Vice President Joseph Biden's former U.S. Senate seat. Similarly, North Dakota and South Dakota sent Democrats to Congress before both were defeated in 2010 by Republican challengers; in the former, nine-term Democratic incumbent Earl Pomeroy fell to Rick Berg, while in the latter, four-term Democrat Stephanie Herseth Sandlin lost to Kristi Arnold Noem.

While these results show that both Democratic and Republican voters in these states have experienced electoral success, winner-take-all rules in one-seat states still mean that, in any given congressional district, only one major party's voters receive representation - and we likely will see fewer such surprises in the years ahead unless the partisan differences between the parties again become less clear. Such unfair results are to be expected in a voting system that makes nuanced representation virtually impossible.

Most at-large states have been dominated by one political party. Wyoming, for example, has not sent a Democrat to the U.S. House since Teno Roncalio resigned in 1978, while Alaska's last Democratic U.S. House representative, Nick Begich (father of current U.S. Senator Mark Begich), died while in office in 1972. In other words, it has been over 30 years since Democrats in either of these states have sent a candidate who shares their views to the U.S. House. Meanwhile, Vermont Republicans have not elected a U.S. House Member since 1990.

The U.S. House elections of 2008 and 2010 are illustrative of the lack of representation inherent in winner-take-all. In 2008, a combined 787,916 voters (counting Democrats in AK, MT, WY, and DE and Republicans in SD and ND) were left unrepresented - a number that would have been even larger had Vermont's Peter Welch received a Republican challenger. The same story occurred two years later in 2010, when - despite partisan turnover in three of the seven seats - a combined 700,304 voters (counting Democrats in AK, MT, WY, SD, and ND and Republicans in DE and VT) were unable to send a favored candidate to the U.S. House. In spite of our basic American principles grounded in representative democracy, winner-take-all ensures that the voices of many thousands of voters are left unheard and unrecognized in the halls of Congress. 

Neglected Major Party Voters in the 2008 and 2010 U.S. House Elections

At-Large State

2008 Winning Party

Number of Losing Party 2008 Voters

Losing
   Party %   2008 Vote

2010 Winning Party

Number of Losing Party 2010 Voters

      Losing       Party %
2010 Vote

AK

R

141,754

45.1%

R

77,606

30.7%

MT

R

154,713

32.4%

R

121,954

33.8%

WY

R

103,677

42.8%

R

45,768

24.5%

SD

D

122,943

32.4%

R

146,589

45.9%

ND

D

118,430

37.9%

R

106,542

45.1%

DE

R

146,399

38.0%

D

125,442

41.0%

VT

D

Unopposed

N/A

D

76,403

32.1%

Totals

-

787,916

-

-

700,304

-

*Source for 2008 data and 2010 data is the New York Times.

Conclusion

Although at-large states avoid the partisan jockeying that goes along with congressional redistricting, they still struggle under the weight of oppressive winner-take-all rules. If the winner-take-all games continue, voters are likely to become even more disenchanted with our political system. In all of the at-large states, scores of voters are left unrepresented, sometimes for decades. They are forced to participate in congressional elections that lack competition and give them a representative in the "people's house" with views they strongly oppose. It is clear that one candidate cannot possibly reflect the makeup of everyone in a district, as winner-take-all assumes. Therefore, we need a new approach that will more accurately reflect the residents of each state. This will be harder to achieve for states with one House member, but by adopting fair voting plans with multi-seat super-districts, we can begin the march toward a more representative democracy.