Voices & Choices

The partisan divide between urban and rural America

The partisan divide between urban and rural America

An important layer of partisanship in American politics is the growing divide between urban and rural voters. In 2016, out of the roughly 3100 counties in the United States, Hillary Clinton won just under 500 counties, or roughly 16 percent. Despite the drubbing across most of American counties, Clinton won the national popular vote by almost three million votes, largely by driving up massive margins in America’s most populous counties. Clinton carried 88 out of the nation’s 100 most populous counties and beat President Donald J. Trump by almost 13 million votes in these counties.

The divide beyond urban and rural areas unsurprisingly extends to congressional districts. As part of FairVote’s Monopoly Politics report, the hardened partisanship of urban and rural congressional districts is examined. According to the 2018 report and U.S. Census data, Republicans hold 88 of the nation’s 100 most rural congressional districts (Figure 1). Among the 50 most rural districts, Republicans hold 45, or 90 percent, of congressional districts. The median Republican partisanship in the 100 most rural districts is 65.7 percent, while just six of these congressional districts have Democratic partisanship. North Carolina’s 1st Congressional District has a Democratic partisanship of 67.5 percent, making it the most Democratic district among the 100 most rural seats. Furthermore, among the most rural districts, just six representatives hold crossover districts. In this case, six Democrats hold districts with a Republican partisanship. All six of the Democratic leaning rural districts have Democratic representatives.


Among the 100 most urban congressional districts, similar trends emerge. Democrats hold 87 of the nation’s 100 most urban districts, while Republicans hold just 13 (Figure 2) . Among the 50 most urban districts, Democrats hold 92 percent (46 districts) of seats. Just nine of the 100 most urban districts have a Republican partisanship; Arizona’s 5th Congressional District, with a Republican partisanship of 61.6 percent, is the most Republican district among the 100 most urban districts. The median urban district has a Democratic partisanship of 68.8 percent.  


The most troubling aspect is that roughly one-third of minority party voters in urban and rural districts lack representation in Congress. In the 100 most rural districts, despite making up a little more than a third of voters, Democrats only elected 12 representatives. Similarly in the 100 most urban districts, Republicans make up a little under one-third of the electorate but only carried 13 districts. In both rural and urban areas, millions of Democrats and Republicans were locked out of electing a candidate of their choice.

The Fair Representation Act (FRA), introduced this year Congressman Don Beyer (VA-08), seeks to address the lack of proportional representation for millions of rural Democrats and urban Republicans. By using ranked choice voting (RCV) and multi-member districts, many different groups would be able to elect a representative of their choice. For instance, a rural seat with a Democratic partisanship of 33 percent have the ability to elect one representative in a three-winner seat, as opposed to zero representatives under the current system.

Some worry that under the FRA, urban areas would dominate rural areas in the larger districts. However, under the current winner-take-all system, rural voters can only elect a representative of their choice if they represent a majority of voters. Under the FRA, rural voters would not need to hold a majority to elect a preferred candidate. A large minority of voters would be empowered to elect a representative. Finally, it means that minority viewpoints in urban and rural districts will be better represented. As shown above, Democrats in rural areas and Republicans in urban areas are significantly underrepresented under the current system. The FRA would allow these groups to have a more pronounced voice in Congress and a greater impact on the political process.

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