In President Obama’s final State of the Union address, his most passionate words seemed drawn from an abridged version of FairVote’s reform playbook. In acknowledging his regret that partisan rancor has kept increasing, the president declared:
“If we want a better politics, it’s not enough to just change a Congressman or a Senator or even a President; we have to change the system to reflect our better selves. We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around. We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics,...We’ve got to make voting easier, not harder, and modernize it for the way we live now. And over the course of this year, I intend to travel the country to push for reforms that do.”
That’s not quite our four-pronged Reform 2020 agenda — that is, fair representation voting for Congress to end gerrymandering, ranked choice voting to accommodate better choices, the National Popular Vote for president and a constitutional right to vote — but it’s heading our direction.
Obama is not the first consequential president to draw attention to gerrymandering. In the twilight of his presidency in 1988, Ronald Reagan called gerrymandering an “anti-democratic and un-American practice.” In an interview with David Brinkley, Reagan described how gerrymandering creates a conflict of interest that results in districts not serving the best interests of the people but rather the politicians. Republican governors Larry Hogan and John Kasich have both recently called for change as well.
At FairVote, we know that gerrymandering is not the root of what ails our democracy, but rather a symptom of using winner-take-all voting rules. The president in his speech called on respect for science, and the science is clear, including in a fascinating study FairVote recently released on 14 leading scholars evaluating 37 different electoral reforms, including redistricting reform and forms of ranked choice voting.
Gerrymandering is corrupting in how it allows politicians to help their friends and hurt their enemies, but from a voter’s perspective, lines drawn by independent commissions will typically control outcomes just as definitively as those by politicians. To get to the root of what the president seeks — “a system to reflect our better selves — we must replace winner-take-all voting rules with fair voting that allows for a meaningful vote and voice for all. Indeed, as a state senator, President Obama acted on just this understanding.
Twisted and distorted outcomes
When district lines, rather than votes, decide who wins elections, voters lose and the politicians who draw the lines win. For 20 years, FairVote has shown how uncompetitive and distorted U.S. House elections are in our Monopoly Politics report. In 2014, more than two years before the 2016 elections, we made final calls in nearly 9 in 10 districts using a methodology that was nearly 99.99% accurate in 2012 and 2014. Many anticipate that for all of voters’ discontent about Congress, we will return to the incumbency retention rates of more than 98% we had in the four elections from 1998 to 2004.
When it comes to partisan rancor, an overwhelming number of incumbents are in districts where their party matches the party that does better in presidential races. To win, they just need to hold their own party’s support. Given the partisan divide, our system creates electoral incentives to fight rather than govern.
The result is that most of the country, including whole states and regions, are dominated by one party, leaving voters outside that party (and dissenting voices within it) with a silenced voice. As former Senate leaders, Trent Lott and Tom Daschle, noted in a recent Washington Post op-ed “representative democracy is not winner-take-all.” But our election system is, and today it leaves little room for other voices.
In the words of Ronald Reagan, “The electoral process has become twisted and distorted and it's time to give the vote back to the people.”
Unrigging the system
Several states have taken action to reform gerrymandering, like Arizona, California and Iowa. But they have limited their changes to independent or at least less partisan redistricting This is a good start, but it will not end the impact of gerrymandering. To end gerrymandering, we must make all votes matter more.
We can make this happen by statute. As outlined in the proposed Ranked Choice Voting Act, FairVote calls for a three-pronged approach to truly end gerrymandering:
Create multi-winner districts where voters elect more than one representative for their district.
Use ranked choice voting to give voters a strong voice in their elections and provide direct representation to the great majority of us no matter where we live.
Utilize independent commissions to create transparent and inclusive district maps.
We’re working with allies on Capitol Hill on the legislation. Stay tuned!
Presidential candidates and electoral reform
The Iowa caucuses and the first contest of the 2016 presidential nomination process will take place on February 1st, when our director Rob Richie will be speaking at a University of Iowa conference on reforming primaries.
Today, electoral reform advocates have an opportunity to encourage the candidates to address their vision for reforming our electoral system to include voices. Already John Kasich has been outspoken on redistricting reform, Bernie Sanders has testified in favor of ranked choice voting, Martin O’Malley signed the National Popular Vote Plan, and Hillary Clinton supports automatic voter registration.
FairVote is excited to be part of a new platform, Change Politics, from Change.org that empowers voters make informed decisions on election day.
We have three important questions we’re asking all the candidates:
Please upvote FairVote’s questions to Republican and Democratic candidates to give electoral reform issues a higher profile this election.
Director of Communications
P.S Keep up with the latest at FairVote.org, our Facebook and Twitter. Today we’re highlighting how the Oscars have been nominated by multi-winner ranked choice voting, and last week we featured a revealing simulation of ranked choice voting in the Republican presidential contest.