Voting Reform Goes from Theory to Legislation

AP Photo/Cliff Owen

Representative Don Beyer speaks in Arlington, Virginia. 

Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens convincingly make the case for a new, fairer system for electing members of Congress. They suggest this statutory change is possible with greater public understanding of its impact. Fortunately, that is already happening.

In 2017, U.S. Representative Don Beyer of Virginia introduced HR 3057, the Fair Representation Act, which requires the use of ranked-choice voting (RCV) for all congressional elections. It relies on the single-winner form for the seven states that elect only one representative. The remaining states would hold multi-winner elections using the single transferable vote form of RCV recommended by Page and Gilens to elect representatives. The bill also requires the 26 states large enough to draw multi-winner districts to establish independent redistricting commissions. It does not abolish primary elections, though if a state holds primary elections it must also use RCV.

While transformative in its impact, the bill is quite consistent with our political history and new reform energy. RCV is used for congressional elections in Maine as well as for local elections in 16 cities. RCV in its multi-winner, fair representation form is used in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Minneapolis. Multi-winner elections have been used to elect congressional representatives as recently as the 1960s and remain common in state and local elections, albeit usually with winner-take-all rules that Gilens and Page rightly criticize. Illinois elected its state representatives with a semi-proportional system from 1870 to 1980, generating fairer representation and better governance.

The Fair Representation Act would have a transformative impact on Congress. To assess its impact, the organization I work for, FairVote, partnered with Auto-Redistrict to automatically generate sample multi-winner district maps grounded in the criteria required by the bill. Our report provides maps for every state and a spreadsheet summarizing the results online. Results include:

●     More competition: Over 60 percent of voters would live in a district where the two major parties would compete for one of the seats, compared to less than 14 percent today. In all districts, we expect to see more competition between candidates of the same party as well as from third party and independent candidates.

●     Better partisan representation and the end of gerrymandering: Every single district in every state entitled to more than three representatives would be politically diverse enough to elect at least one Democrat and at least one Republican. Democrats would be represented in places like Oklahoma and Utah; Republicans would be represented in Massachusetts and Manhattan. Neither major party would have an unfair advantage in overall representation. No candidate would be called a “spoiler.”

●     Better governance: Republicans and Democrats would share constituents everywhere, encouraging the kind of greater cross-party collaboration our constitutional system of checks and balances requires.

●     A more reflective Congress: Women and people of color remain underrepresented in the House of Representatives. Women’s representation would likely increase sharply based on data about women’s representation in multi-winner districts in state legislatures, and communities of color would have far greater voting power. 

Consider, for example, our analysis on how the bill could impact representation of African-American communities in the Deep South. Under today’s rules, from Louisiana through the Carolinas, nearly every majority white congressional district is safely Republican and nearly every majority African American district is safely Democratic. Only 5 percent of districts are competitive, and every state elects a greater proportion of Republicans than it would under a proportional statewide system. With HR 3057, every single district would likely elect both Democrats and Republicans, with African American communities having the power to determine at least one of the winners in every or almost every district, and having the power to elect 13 seats total—up from 10 today. 

The issue is gaining momentum. Recent media coverage has included a column by David Brooks in The New York Times, aptly titled “One Reform to Save America” and Matt Yglesias’s article in Voxsimilarly titled, “Proportional representation could save America.” Beyer’s bill now has six sponsors. The number of state and local proposals for RCV has grown immensely, and next year Congress itself will include two representatives and one senator elected by RCV from Maine.

Page and Gilens are right that passage will require “persistent pressure from a broad, sustained social movement.” Fortunately, that movement now exists and is growing.