Voices & Choices

Votes vs. Seats in the People's House

Votes vs. Seats in the People's House

Projections for who will win tonight’s election for President and which political party will take control of the Senate have shifted over time, but so far everyone agrees on one thing: Republicans will keep control of the House, even if they once again win fewer votes than Democrats.

The degree of partisan skew in House races makes a mockery of accountability. It was wrong when Democrats ran the House from 1955 to 1995, and it’s wrong today. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with candidates from any given political party winning elections - when they win more votes. However, it undermines accountability when more voters turn out and vote for one group of candidates, and when their opponents - with very different values and priorities - nonetheless win. Accountability to voters goes to the very heart of what it means to be a democracy - even more so when such a result was widely granted this entire election year no matter what the national polls showed in the presidential vote or general two-party preference vote.

The United States is a 50-50 nation: that is, about half the country’s voters prefer Democrats to Republicans, and vice versa. However, in any given election, the country may swing from as much as 54% Republican to 54% Democratic. In 2006, 2008, and 2012, the country favored Democrats. In 2010 and 2014, the country favored Republicans. But even in 2012, when about 52% of voters wanted a Democratic House and Democratic candidates won more than a million more votes, Republicans won a comfortable majority of seats in the House of Representatives.

That year Mitt Romney lost the national popular vote by four percentage points, but he won more votes than Barack Obama in a solid majority of House districts. In fact, Obama would have to have won nationally by almost 10 percentage points for Democratic candidates to win in a majority of House districts. This year, Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz’s pre-election analysis suggested that Republicans could keep the House even if Democrats win about 56% of the vote nationwide.

From 1955 to 1995, ticket-splitting allowed Democrats to maintain a majority in the House of Representatives, even though they only controlled the White House for 14 of those years. FairVote’s long-time board chair John Anderson served in Congress for 20 years - and never once in the majority. It was unfair for one party to have a monopoly on the People’s House then, just as it is now.

Today, the root of the partisan skew is in geography. Democratic voters are increasingly clustered in population dense urban areas, while Republican voters are more efficiently distributed. The 50 most Democratic districts in the country have a median partisanship of 79% Democratic, whereas the 50 most Republican districts have a median partisanship of only 70% Republican. This directly shows how fewer Republican votes are wasted in safe districts than Democratic votes.

Although post 2010 intentional gerrymandering contributed to this trend, it is not the sole - or even the most significant - cause of it. For example, nobody has recently gerrymandered county lines, yet they demonstrate a similar skew. In 2012, Barack Obama won 52% of the national two-party vote, but he only carried 22% of counties. To see how much more severe this trend has become, consider that in 1988 Michael Dukakis carried 26.3% of counties, even while losing the national popular vote by almost eight percent.

Tonight, we can say with confidence that Republicans will maintain their majority in the House of Representatives, whether they win more votes or not. In addition, there will likely be multiple states in which more voters vote for one party, yet the other party wins more seats. In 2012, that boosted Republicans in Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin in districts drawn by Republican state lawmakers. Interestingly, it also happened in Arizona - in a plan drawn by an independent redistricting commission.

Looking forward, FairVote is proposing a win-win solution for everyone - the Fair Representation Act that puts every voter in a meaningful contest every election and provides fair, accurate results that reflect what voters want both within states and nationally. Find out more in our webpages on the Act, and be ready to urge your Member of Congress to support the legislation in 2017.


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