Democracy is in crisis. Even as the country is deeply divided along class and ideological lines, it seems to be unified in its frustration with our current brand of politics.
Polls show that less than 20 percent of the country approves of the way Congress is doing its job. The time has come to consider a transformative idea that reflects the American electorate’s desire for moderation and fairness and that encourages the reemergence of bridge builders and candidates with an eye for compromise. That idea involves changing the way we elect members of the House of Representatives.
This week, I introduced the Fair Representation Act, which would make two fundamental changes in how voters elect their representative in the U.S. House. First, it would allow voters to rank the candidates in order of preference, rather than simply voting for their top choice. Some version of this system is already used in many municipalities, and six states have adopted some kind of ranked-choice voting for congressional elections. If your first-choice candidate does not win, your second or third choice may. This spurs candidates to work to appeal to a broader swath of voters, which would calm polarization in many parts of the country.
Second, the Fair Representation Act would change congressional districts into “multi-member districts,” as used in many states for their legislative elections. Think of it as a hybrid between what we have today and Senate seats, in which two people jointly represent a larger area. States with five or fewer House members would elect all their representatives at large. Any state with six or more members would elect representatives in multi-member districts.
Let’s take Massachusetts. It is home to nine congressional seats, all held by Democrats. Although 24 percent of Massachusetts voters with party registrations are registered Republicans, no Republican has held a seat in the House of Representatives — in 20 years. This means that the Republican quartile of the electorate rightly feels left out and disillusioned, and Democratic candidates largely run and govern from the left, knowing it is the source of their only true opposition.
Now divide Massachusetts into equal thirds, apply ranked-choice voting and elect three candidates in each district. A few things would happen. For one, no district is a gerrymandered, partisan swath of the state. Rather, each district represents a larger and therefore more diverse array of voters. This is likely both to attract more candidates and to entice those candidates to speak to the middle of the spectrum. In turn, more citizens would feel that someone speaks to their issue or viewpoint, which encourages voter participation.
Applied nationally, we would have more moderate Democrats from districts leaning Republican, and vice versa, creating a type of politician — now nearly extinct — known as a “bridge builder.” Many members would share constituents with members of the other major party, creating new incentives to work together on legislation affecting the district.
Results from local elections that use ranked-choice voting also show that more women would run and win and that minority voting rights would be strengthened by this change — all the more important today given that women make up less than 20 percent of Congress and that racial minorities are caught in legal fights over gerrymandering.
Some might ask whether it is Congress’ job to tell states how to hold their elections. Under the Constitution, Congress is in fact expected to act when the system is broken. In 1842, it mandated a system of single-member districts when some states started to use at-large elections as a partisan tool. Now we see the breakdown of that district system, and it’s time for a new standard.
In 1993, 113 members of the House came from “crossover” districts, where voters favored the opposite party. After the 2014 midterm election there were just 26, according to analysis by FairVote, a nonpartisan organization that supports the Fair Representation Act. In the near future, we could again have dozens, leading to revitalization of our democracy.
But we almost certainly will not unless we change the system.
Don Beyer, a Democrat, represents Virginia’s Eighth District in the U.S. House.