Voices & Choices

At Its Own Summit for Democracy, the U.S. Was an Outlier. The Fair Representation Act Could Change That.

At Its Own Summit for Democracy, the U.S. Was an Outlier. The Fair Representation Act Could Change That.

Last week, President Biden hosted a "Summit for Democracy" where representatives from over 100 countries shared ideas, experiences, and best practices in democratic governance at a precarious moment for democracy across the globe. 

At a time when our own democratic system is struggling, the U.S. was a glaring outlier among the summit invitees in at least one way: the way we choose our lawmakers. Only 26 of the 110 invited countries -- or 24% of the countries the Biden Administration considers democracies -- elect their national legislatures as we do in the U.S.; that is, electing one representative per district in winner-take-all elections. 

Yet, this key topic was inexplicably missing from the Summit for Democracy agenda, but for New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern mentioning her country’s proportional, multi-member legislature in her remarks. Ardern explained that the way New Zealand elects its lawmakers has directly impacted the quality of representation -- leading to a more “representative and diverse” government. 

On the other hand, our winner-take-all voting system tends to leave women and minorities out in the cold. It also increases the stakes of every election -- even in a close race, the loser gets absolutely nothing. Further, 70 million Americans live in a district certain to elect a representative from the other party -- meaning Republicans in Massachusetts and Democrats in Arkansas have no realistic chance of impacting how they are represented in Congress. 

There are reasons the vast majority of democracies use a form of proportional representation -- and why the United States should too. The frustration and polarization created by our voting system can occasionally come to a head with political violence -- as they did on January 6 at the U.S. Capitol. Compare the deadly Trump-Biden handoff to the peaceful transfer of power that just occurred in Germany. Or our uninterrupted line of 45 male presidents to the female prime ministers today in nations with proportional voting systems like Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Ardern in New Zealand, and Angela Merkel’s 16 years of leadership in Germany.

Importantly, the U.S. Constitution does not outline many of the specifics of how we elect members of Congress. We the people have the power to change our elections with legislation alone -- and if we are serious about maintaining the health of our democracy, it is past time to do so. 

The most important proposal for real reform is the Fair Representation Act, sponsored by Congressman Don Beyer. Right now, each Congressional district has one representative -- usually a hyper-partisan member elected in an uncompetitive, gerrymandered district. Under the Fair Representation Act, Congressional districts would be larger and have three to five members. Representatives would be elected in proportion to the number of votes received, using ranked choice voting -- so that sizable political minorities, such as Republicans in Massachusetts and Democrats in Arkansas, would likely have at least one representative who is responsive to their preferences. 

The stakes of coming in 2nd or 3rd place would be lowered dramatically -- and so would the temperature of our politics. Legislators would nearly always share constituents with someone of another party, and each of the major parties would have representatives particularly attentive to both rural and urban Americans.

This American, candidate-based form of proportional representation, rather than winner-take-all, would encourage representatives to both campaign and legislate on behalf of a wider array of voters -- not just the small and unrepresentative base that turns out for party primaries. It would dramatically reduce the incentive for extreme partisanship, and greatly reduce politicians’ ability to gerrymander

Of course, no single reform will solve all of our societal and political ills. But the Fair Representation Act can reduce legislative gridlock, dissipate toxic partisanship, and provide better representation for voters. It can help us both avoid another January 6 and hand off a more stable and solvent democracy to our children. 

And we don’t need to take it on faith alone. Thanks to last week’s Summit, we’ve been reminded of our outlier status, and the success of more than 80 democracies using proportional representation. We ought to learn from them -- and follow their lead. 

Ryan J. Suto is a Senior Policy Advisor at FairVote, a nonpartisan organization seeking better elections.

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