Across the country, people find themselves without adequate representation in districts where one party dominates the other.
Despite receiving only 50.39 percent of votes, Republicans won 10 of North Carolina’s 13 House seats in the 2018 election. This was unquestionably a consequence of gerrymandering, a practice that has been well-documented in the state. Republican lawmakers have even gone on-record admitting to having used “political data… to gain a partisan advantage.” Consequently, Republicans there hold a disproportionate amount of representation in Congress, and the state’s Democratic voters are severely underrepresented.
However, as evidenced by conditions in Massachusetts, problems with adequate representation are not limited to those implemented deliberately.
Last month, the Election Law Journal published an article highlighting a major problem with congressional districts. It concluded that, in the state of Massachusetts, "[t]hough there are more ways of building a valid districting plan than there are particles in the galaxy, every single one of them would produce a 9–0 Democratic delegation." Its authors had sought to investigate why, despite there being a fairly consistent 30-40% vote share for Republicans in statewide elections dating back to at least 2000, the state had not sent a single Republican to the House since 1994. They determined that it was not the result of any foul play, but rather a consequence of the fact that “Republican votes… are distributed so uniformly that they are locked out of the possibility of representation.”
In 2018, such disproportionate representation was not limited to the Bay State. In California and Maryland, for instance, Democrats won more seats than their vote share would suggest they ought to, while the same was true for Republicans in Texas and Ohio. When compared side-by-side with popular vote numbers, the difference is prominent. It is worth mentioning that these numbers are consistent with those expected by FairVote’s measure of partisanship in these states.
In cases of gerrymandering, it is true that redistricting can help to alleviate large disparities between vote shares and seats won, but redistricting cannot remedy the underlying issue. As evidenced by Massachusetts, sometimes populations are distributed in such a way that renders districts incapable of accounting for a particular group. In truth, a system of picking representatives in winner-take-all congressional districts is inherently incapable of providing Americans with accurate representation. Fortunately, it is not a problem that requires a constitutional amendment.
First introduced in 2017, the Fair Representation Act provides a solution which would allow for representation that better reflects the American people.
In short, the legislation would institute ranked choice voting nationally for House members, and create multi-winner districts in all states with more than one representative. Voters who would otherwise be part of a political minority, under this plan, would have a real chance to elect their candidate, as the threshold for winning a seat in a multi-seat district would be lower than needed in single-winner districts. In states with five or fewer representatives, elections would occur statewide, while any with six or more would be divided into multiple districts with 3, 4, or 5 seats each. The thresholds for victory are shown below.
The Fair Representation Act would do all of this without changing the number of representatives per state. At the same time, it would keep district sizes manageable, and use ranked choice voting to best represent and reflect the will of the electorate. It is a necessary step, for if a government is to be truly representative of the people it governs, then it must reflect, with some proportionality, that body of people.
In 1789, Jefferson wrote that “no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation.” He also wrote, in 1816, that “laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.” 100 years later, Louis Brandeis observed that, contrary to Jefferson’s belief, “the law has everywhere a tendency to lag behind the facts of life.”
If the earth belongs to the living, so too does the responsibility to not only recognize problems and changing conditions, but more importantly to rectify and adapt to them. And, when a solution presents itself, there can be little reason to maintain a system of representation that fails to accomplish its primary objective outside of what Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. identified as “blind imitation of the past.”
The Fair Representation Act follows an American tradition of adaptation and evolution, and represents an important step towards repairing a broken system and fixing our democracy.