Fair Representation Voting

Fair representation is the principle that a legislature should reflect all of the voters who elect them. Like-minded voters should be able to elect representatives in proportion to their number.

In contrast, most elections in the United States are winner-take-all: instead of reflecting all voters, our legislators reflect only the biggest or strongest group of voters that elected them, leaving all others unrepresented. The use of winner-take-all voting methods in our elections for state legislatures and Congress is a central reason for major problems with our politics: gerrymandering, partisan gridlock, no-choice elections and distortions in fair representation all have roots in the inherent problems of winner-take-all methods.

Fair Representation Act for Congress

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Fair Representation Voting

FairVote advocates for more fair and proportional voting methods informed by American, candidate-centered values, called fair representation voting. Unlike European systems, which generally focus on party lists, FairVote's fair representation voting methods are American solutions using American ideas. Under fair representation systems in the United States, voters vote for individual candidates and have representatives tied to their communities.

Ranked choice voting, cumulative voting, limited voting, and Districts Plus are all types of fair representation voting advocated for by FairVote. To learn more about these types of fair representation voting, explore this page further, and watch our video below to learn more about what fair and proportional representation mean to us.

 

The Fair Representation Act

Our country is ready to reform our elections. Now is the time for Congress to act. The Fair Representation Act (H.R. 4000) is the bold, comprehensive solution that solves our problems with partisan gerrymandering and uncompetitive elections, and encourages politicians to represent everyone, not just their base.

Partisan gerrymandering has only gotten worse in an era of sophisticated technology and polarized voting patterns. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that partisan gerrymandering was a political issue beyond the ability of federal courts to decide, the justices encouraged Congress to consider a national solution. An act of Congress is the only way to deliver fairness to all Americans in all states.

However, our problems go beyond gerrymandering: The problem is districting itself. A winner-take-all system in which only one person is elected to represent each district no longer works in this era of hardened partisanship, across both geographic and racial lines. It locks most voters into congressional districts that are increasingly skewed toward one party, and leaves too many voters unrepresented and powerless to affect outcomes.

Single-winner districts no longer work well for American democracy. Almost 90 percent of them are completely safe for the party that holds them. Millions of Americans -- whether urban Republicans, red-state Democrats, independents, women and communities of color -- are dramatically underrepresented, with little chance of fixing this at the polls.

The Fair Representation Act helps fix this. Multi-winner districts allow every voter to elect someone from the major party they support. Ranked-choice elections are proportional, so today’s skewed outcomes -- or parties winning more seats with fewer votes -- become a thing of the past. Larger districts defeat gerrymandering because the district lines simply matter less.


With proportional outcomes and a wider variety of candidates advancing to the general election, the Fair Representation Act will create more fair opportunities for women, people of color, urban Republicans, rural Democrats, and independents.

We must open elections to reflect our full diversity. The Fair Representation Act is the strongest commitment and most complete solution to voter equality, equal representation and greater choice. It’s how we make our democracy work again -- for everyone. 

For more information, click here. 

Preferred Fair Representation Voting Method: Ranked Choice Voting

Ranked Choice Voting

FairVote has identified ranked choice voting as our preferred fair representation voting method. RCV offers the following benefits. 

  • promotes majority support
  • discourages negative campaigning
  • provides more choice to voters
  • minimizes strategic voting
  • promotes minority representation
  • saves money on primaries and runoffs.

RCV is the method used in the Fair Representation Act for the U.S. House of Representatives. We also advocate for RCV in other multi-winner contests, like city councils elected at large and state legislatures elected in multi-winner districts.

How are votes counted with multi-winner RCV? Find out here

 

Other Fair Representation Voting Methods

We continue to work on variety of fair voting reforms outside of ranked choice voting, such as the open ticket method, cumulative voting, and Districts Plus.

The methods discussed here are more susceptible to gaming or tactical voting than ranked choice voting is, and are less effective than RCV at promoting minority representation and improving voter choice. While each of these methods provides greater proportional representation to voters in the cities, states, or countries where they are used, we recommend them only as steps toward the use of ranked choice voting.

Open Ticket Voting

The open ticket method, or "unordered open list system" combines the benefits of proportional representation with simplicity for voters and administrators. Voters cast a single vote for a single candidate in a partisan election. Candidates are elected if they pass the same threshold used in ranked choice voting. Additionally, remaining seats are filled by looking at what proportion of voters voted for candidates of the same political party. For example, in a three-seat district in which a majority of voters favored candidates running as Republicans, two seats would be awarded to Republican candidates.

To learn more about the open ticket method, see FairVote's innovation page for open ticket voting.

Cumulative Voting

Cumulative voting is a variant of bloc voting in which voters may cast a number of votes equal to the number of candidates to be elected, but they may cast them freely; for example by casting all of their votes for one candidate, or splitting them evenly between two. 

Illinois elected its State House of Representatives from three-seat districts with cumulative voting from 1870 to 1980, with a number of important benefits. Voters have cumulative voting rights in at-large elections in several jurisdictions in Alabama, New York, South Dakota, and Texas. Additionally, cumulative voting rights are often extended to shareholders in corporate elections to prevent a single majority shareholder from controlling the entire board of elections.

Single-Vote Method & "Limited Voting"

The simplest fair representation voting method is a variant of "limited voting" (so-called because voters have fewer votes than the number of seats to be elected) called the single vote method. Each voter has one potent vote, and the candidates who receive the most votes are elected.

When electing at-large, counties in Connecticut and Pennsylvania are required by state law to use limited voting with limited nominations, meaning that political parties must nominate fewer candidates than the number of seats to be filled. Local jurisdictions in Alabama and North Carolina have adopted the single vote or other variants on limited voting in response to lawsuits brought under the Voting Rights Act.

Districts Plus

Districts Plus is FairVote's improvement upon single-winner districts: a mix of Mixed-Member Proportional systems used in countries such as Germany and New Zealand with American-style, candidate-based elections.

For those who like local, geographic-based representation, Districts Plus is a particularly attractive fair representation voting system. It makes every vote in every district meaningful in every election, and ensures that the party that receives the most votes wins the most seats.

Districts Plus preserves the current system in which most representatives are elected from single-member districts. It also adds "accountability seats" to the legislature to guarantee that when one party's candidates gets the most votes, that party will win the most seats. As a result, every contest in every district is meaningful in every election. Parties will have an incentive to field strong candidates in every district, no matter how imbalanced that district may be.

To learn more about Districts Plus, see FairVote's innovation page for Districts Plus.

Fair Representation Voting in the United States

Fair voting systems have a long history of use in a variety of elections throughout the United States at the state, county, and city levels. Illinois elected its House of Representatives by fair representation voting for over one hundred years, and cities across the United States use methods such as cumulative voting or limited voting to elect their City Councils. 

Well over two hundred U.S. cities and counties use some form of fair representation voting today to elect their boards of supervisors, city councils, school boards, or other elected offices.

Here are some of the cities with the most robust use of fair representation voting methods:

  • Cambridge, Massachusetts has used ranked choice voting to elect its nine-member city council since 1941. Cambridge locals and academics have praised the system for ensuring full representation of Cambridge citizens and maintaining proportional representation for women and racial minorities, even during periods of elevated tensions elsewhere.
  • Chilton County, AL uses cumulative voting to elect both its seven-member county commission and five-member school board.
  • Peoria, IL uses cumulative voting to elect five at-large members in its 11-member city council.
  • Amarillo, TX uses cumulative voting to elect its school board and college board of trustees.
  • Port Chester, NY uses cumulative voting to elect its board of trustees/city council

Most of these uses were implemented in response to lawsuits brought under the Voting Rights Act. FairVote produces a booklet describing how fair representation voting can remedy vote dilution claims and under what circumstances they should be used.

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Fair Representation and the Voting Rights Act

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, as amended in 1982, prohibits the use of election systems which dilute the effectiveness of racial minority votes. Winner-take-all election schemes, whether at-large or by district, may dilute the votes of minorities, including racial minorities. Fair representation voting has been used to resolve many cases brought against small jurisdictions under the Voting Rights Act. Here are some resources regarding the intersection of proportional representation and the voting rights of racial minorities:

Fair Representation in Illinois: 1870–1980

Following the civil war, Illinois suffered from severe partisan polarization between the Republican-controlled northern half of the state (including Chicago) and the Democrat-controlled south. Like partisan polarization today, this trend resulted in most legislative districts in Illinois being strongly Democratic or strongly Republican, utterly excluding moderates and members of the minority party from every district's representation.

To resolve the problem, Illinois adopted a fair representation voting method in 1870, electing its house of representatives three-seat districts using cumulative voting. Illinois repealed the system in 1980, through a poorly publicized amendment on the ballot known as the 'Cutback Amendment' because it reduced the size of the Illinois house.

Since then, there have been a number of calls for a return to fair representation voting in Illinois, including a bill introduced by Barack Obama when he was a state senator in 2001. That same year a commission convened to study fair representation voting in Illinois concluded that the system offered greater choice for voters, provided candidates easier access to the electoral system, provided better mixed representation by party, and more. To learn more about proportional representation in Illinois, see our Spotlight: Illinois page.

Ranked Choice Voting for City Councils at the Turn of the Century

The first U.S. city to adopt at-large ranked choice voting for its city council was Ashtabula, Ohio in 1915. During the first half of the 20th century, ranked choice voting spread rapidly as part of the progressive movement. At its peak, some two-dozen cities adopted it, including Cincinnati, Cleveland, Boulder, Sacramento, and even New York City. New York City continued to use ranked choice voting for its school board until 2002 when those school boards were abolished.

As the progressive era transitioned into a period characterized by racial tensions and fear of communism, at-large ranked choice voting became a victim of its own success. In Cincinnati, ranked choice voting enabled the election of two African American city council members in the 1950's. In 1951, African American attorney Theodore M. Berry won with the highest percent of the vote, which ordinarily would result in him becoming mayor. Instead, the city council chose one of the white councilmen to become mayor. Finally, Cincinnati repealed ranked choice voting in 1957 in the fifth Republican-led repeal attempt. Following civil unrest stemming from racial tensions in the 1960's, the Kerner Commission cited the repeal of ranked choice voting and its effect on African American representation as one cause of the city's violence.

Similarly, in New York City, ranked choice voting cut off the stranglehold previously held by the Democratic Party in the city. In the last election before adoption of choice voting, Democrats won 99.5% of the seats on the Board of Alderman with only 66.5% of the vote. Under ranked choice voting in 1941, Democrats won 65.5% of the seats with 64% of the vote, a much fairer result. However, ranked choice voting enabled representation of minor parties, including members of the Communist Party. During the Cold War, the Democratic Party took advantage of fears of communism to make a successful push for repeal of ranked choice voting. That repeal successfully prevented the election of communists to the city council, along with members of all other minor parties, but it also brought back an era of unrepresentative elections to New York City.

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