This Congressional Race Helps Show What’s Wrong with American Elections

Posted by Ethan Fitzgerald on June 30, 2016

On Tuesday, voters across New York State participated in primary elections to nominate candidates for November’s congressional elections. In the 13th District, nine Democrats were running to replace Charlie Rangel, who has held the Harlem-based seat for 46 years. The crowded field yielded a narrow result, with State Senator Adriano Espaillat beating State Assemblyman Keith Wright (Rangel’s chosen successor) 37% to 34%.

Most of the coverage of the primary has examined the growing influence of the Latino community in what was once a predominantly black district. In response to the prospect of the district no longer being represented by an African American, Rangel himself said “Can you tell the people in Boston that some day you won’t have an Irish congressman? I don’t want to talk about it and it can’t happen now that’s for damn sure.”

This line of thinking distracts from the underlying cause of this tension: winner-take-all, single-winner Congressional districts. In addition to forcing different groups of voters to compete for the scarce representation they are afforded by this system, the way we elect Congress is also plagued by issues such as plurality winners, turnout gaps, vote-splitting, single-party dominance, and incumbency advantages. All of these were on display in the District 13 primary, and all of these contribute to making Congress so dysfunctional.

Although Espaillat did not receive a majority of the vote - 63% of voters preferred another candidate - he will still advance to the general election under the first-past-the-post voting rules used in most US elections. He is also virtually guaranteed victory in November in spite of the fact that only about 12% of the district’s Democrats voted and turnout in general elections is typically much higher - and indeed was higher in the presidential primary in April, when nearly three times as many people voted. Given the district’s heavily Democratic lean - it has a 93.1% partisanship rating in FairVote’s most recent Monopoly Politics report - any Democrat would be expected to win the general election.

The district's status as a Democratic stronghold has existed since Rangel’s predecessor, Civil Rights icon Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. won the seat in 1945. Rangel unseated him in 1970, and has now held the office for 23 terms, thanks in no small part to the district's partisan bias. While few would argue that district residents were ever eager to elect a Republican, the fact that they have had only two representatives since World War II points to a serious lack of political competition, which is needed to bring new ideas, viewpoints, and energy into policymaking.

After the 2010 census, District 13’s lines were redrawn to include more of Upper Manhattan and part of the Bronx, bringing new, mostly Dominican, communities into the historically black constituency. Even after becoming just the sixth member of the House to be censured amid corruption allegations, Rangel was able to fend off 2012 and 2014 primary challenges from Espaillat, who was born in the Dominican Republic and represents a Bronx district in the State Senate.

Rangel’s retirement created a vacuum that politicians from the district’s black and Latino communities aimed to fill. Some Dominicans were concerned that Espaillat would split the vote with longtime rival and fellow Dominican American Guillermo Linares, who ultimately received 5.5% of the primary vote. Instead Assemblyman Wright may have been most harmed by vote splitting, as the three other black candidates - including the son of Rangel’s predecessor - combined for more than 20%.

The issues affecting the District 13 Democratic primary are problems in elections at every level of government across the US. FairVote’s fair representation voting plan for Congress addresses all of these. The plan would use ranked choice voting to elect up to five representatives from House “super-districts” and have smaller states elect their entire delegations at-large. Even using ranked choice voting within single-winner districts would be a major improvement, as underscored by the fractured result in the District 13 primary.

Voters would express their full preference by ranking candidates, giving them real choices on Election Day. New voices and ideas would enter the political arena and a candidate representing any group could win a seat if they receive a meaningful share of the vote. Racial minority groups wouldn’t need to compete with each other for a single “majority-minority” seat. And party monopolies would end, meaning Republicans in liberal areas like New York City would be able to cast their vote for someone who actually has a real chance of being elected and more third parties and independents could run competitively too.

The bottom line is that places like New York City, which in addition to being racially and culturally diverse, is home to people of all political ideologies, wouldn’t have just one representative. Instead, Americans in nearly every state would be able to elect a full delegation that reflects that diversity. After having had just two representatives in Congress over the last 70 years, voters in New York’s 13th District deserve a system that gives them real choices on Election Day and a real chance at being fully represented.

Image Source: Adriano Espaillat for Congress 2016

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