No More Gerrymanders: Missouri's Partisan Plan versus the Fair Voting Alternative

by Lindsey Needham, Fair Voting Plans, Sheahan Virgin // Published March 15, 2012

Missouri's new congressional redistricting plan is a classic partisan gerrymander. Republicans are likely to win 75% of House seats even in years when their candidates receive fewer votes statewide than Democrats. Of eight congressional districts, only one is even remotely balanced between the major parties.

Reformers rightly criticize such partisan gerrymandering, but the root of this unfairness is Missouri's use of winner-take-all voting. Changing winner-take-all voting is the only way to ensure that all Missouri voters participate in meaningfully contested elections while also earning fair representation. To showcase a better way to elect representatives, FairVote is drawing a series of congressional plans based on adopting a fair voting alternative to winner-take-all elections. If Missouri adopted our fair voting plan, nearly all of its voters would help elect a preferred candidate in every election. For a more detailed analysis of redistricting in Missouri and our fair voting plan, read our new report No More Gerrymanders: Missouri.

Missouri's 2011 Gerrymander

In May 2011, Missouri approved a congressional redistricting plan in which Republican state legislators sought to help their political friends and hurt their adversaries - just as partisans typically do when in control of redistricting. The result was a collection of highly gerrymandered districts that prioritized politics above preserving communities. In effect, elected officials chose their voters before voters had had a chance to choose them.

Missouri's Congressional Redistricting Map

 

With Missouri losing one of its U.S. House seats, the Republican plan eliminated the St. Louis-based district of Democrat Russ Carnahan and packed all of St. Louis into the 1st District of William Lacy Clay, Jr. The Kansas City district represented by Clay's fellow Congressional Black Caucus member Emanuel Cleaver also became more heavily Democratic. That packing of Democratic voters into two districts allowed the legislature to keep all remaining districts heavily Republican. The five returning Republican incumbents all represent districts expected to be won by more than 20 percentage points in a typical year, and the one open seat (vacated by Republican Todd Akin) also has a strong Republican lean.

 

Unsurprisingly, Democratic Governor Jay Nixon vetoed this map. But Republicans and some African American Democrats in the state legislature joined to override his veto. A lawsuit challenging the lack of geographic compactness is before the state Supreme Court.

The Root of the Problem: Winner-Take-All

Although it is easy to point fingers at the perpetrators of this partisan gerrymander, beneath the surface is a structural problem that enables their behavior.  In American elections, no structural rule is more central than "winner-take-all" voting, which allows 50% +1 of voters to win 100% of representation in a district.

In winner-take-all voting, backers of a defeated candidate do not receive any representation - meaning as many as 49.99% of voters can be denied representation. Winner-take-all voting gives those shaping districts great power, particularly because American voters have increasingly rigid preferences when faced with a choice between the major parties.

It doesn't take much to make a district "safe" for the majority - and devoid of competition. A district's tilt makes the results highly predictable once outside of a range of 45% to 55%, just as presidential states can be divided into "battlegrounds" and "swing states." More than two-thirds of congressional districts fall outside that partisan range, and political activity in those districts has little chance to change the outcome.

In the 2010 elections, for example, only a single Republican won nationally in the 155 U.S. House districts with a Democratic lean of more than 54%. Only five Democrats won in one of the 149 House districts with a Republican lean of more than 56%. One of those heavily Republican districts was that of Ike Skelton, Missouri's long-serving Democratic incumbent who finally succumbed in 2010 to the power of partisanship in the modern era. His three fellow Missouri Democrats held on because they represented much more Democratic districts.

The partisan tilt to most districts is only occasionally attributable to blatant gerrymandering. Because most Members of Congress represent regions of a state that have an inherent advantage for one party, a state that drew perfectly compact districts would usually end up with mostly noncompetitive elections. National maps color-coded to illustrate the partisan control of U.S. House districts (Republicans in red and Democrats in blue) underscore this point. Most areas of the country are dominated by one party, reducing the nuanced views of many voters to a simplistic "Republican red" or "Democratic blue."

To be sure, allowing legislators to draw their own district makes an already unjust situation worse. But winner-take-all voting is inherently undemocratic in its effect no matter what the intent. When only one side can win, no district can accurately reflect its actual partisan composition, and most districts will not be competitive.

The Solution: Replace Winner-Take-All

FairVote advocates replacing winner-take-all voting rules that make gerrymandering so tempting. Our report, No More Gerrymanders: Missouri, is the latest in an ongoing series in which we demonstrate-state by state-how only a modest change in federal and state laws would have a dramatic impact on voter choice and political representation.

Fair Voting with Super Districts Map

 

Our fair voting system combines Missouri's eight single-seat districts into two multi-seat "super-districts," one with five representatives and the other with three. Within these multi-seat districts, voters select representatives to the U.S. House using a form of proportional representation, several of which are already used in local elections in the United States and in national elections in other nations. In the five-seat district, about 17% of voters could win one of five seats. In the three seat district, it would take just over a quarter of the vote to win representation.

 

Although we were limited to combining the heavily gerrymandered districts created by the state legislature, our plan shows how Missouri can achieve genuine competition, voter choice, and reflective representation. Under our plan, Republicans and Democrats each would be well positioned to win three seats in every election. Republicans would be favored to win the two remaining "toss-ups," one in each super-district, but Democrats could win depending on quality of candidates and the national partisan tide.

Unlike the gerrymandered map, the resulting partisan balance is reflective of the state's political divide. Republicans and Democrats would be certain to win in both super-districts, meaning each would have shared representation, all voters would participate in a meaningful election and most would elect a preferred candidate. The districts also would allow for new opportunities for independents, third parties, women and "innovative" thinkers within the major parties -- winners would likely reflect differences within the parties, not just between them.

Permitted by the U.S. Constitution, fair voting could be implemented by states once Congress repeals a 1967 federal law mandating single-seat districts. Many states have already used multi-seat districts in the past, including two states (Hawaii and New Mexico) that were doing so at the time of the 1967 law. 

Our democracy is severely constricted through winner-take-all voting rules that reward partisan tactics. Until these rules are replaced by fair voting, we will have mostly meaningless, uncompetitive elections and distorted representation. Fair voting would bring millions of voters-long sidelined by winner-take-all-back into an electoral process they should control rather than politicians. By adopting fair voting, we can invigorate our electoral system and finally have truly representative democracy.