Across the nation, Americans are frustrated with divisive politics and elections in which they feel as though their voice goes unheard. FairVote has long called for reforming winner-take-all elections to address the root cause for congressional gerrymandering, distorted representation, dysfunction, and polarization. But a 1967 law mandating single-winner districts presents a stiff barrier--one that will deny a comprehensive national solution until Congress takes action on our proposed Ranked Choice Voting Act.
However, states are laboratories of democracy, and we now have an exciting new approach to reform--one that promises to kick start a conversation about how to fix congressional elections and initiate change in the states.
Calls for Change in Maryland
Last week in his State of the State address, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R) called for an end to gerrymandering--that is, the drawing of district lines to influence election outcomes. By some measures, Maryland is the nation's most gerrymandered state. Its eight districts are all safe for one party with Democrats controlling seven of them.
Gerrymandering is been practiced by both major parties in red and blue states across the nation in order to create an advantage in elections. Just this month a panel of federal judges ordered the North Carolina state legislature to redraw two congressional districts that they held had been racially gerrymandered. Florida and Virginia have new congressional districts this year after successful legal challenges.
But taking on the problem at a congressional level is particularly complicated for reformers. While most Americans agree that manipulating district lines is wrong, individual states face partisan incentives to keep on gerrymandering. That is, if Pennsylvania's congressional gerrymander allows Republicans to win two-thirds of seats while losing the statewide congressional vote, is it reasonable to expect Maryland to unilaterally be fair? That view is even more likely when what may seem like a fair process can actually produce distorted and noncompetitive outcomes depending on where voters live in a state.
That's why we applaud Maryland legislation introduced this week by Maryland State Senator Jamie Raskin. It offers a comprehensive solution to gerrymandering, and new means to break through the partisan standoff that has halted progress on even modest redistricting reform in most states. Here's how it works.
A "Potomac Compact" with Virginia -- and Beyond
A long-time proponent of fair representation voting, Sen. Raskin has put forward a creative way to end the national standoff. Maryland would enter an interstate compact (a contract among states, for example the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey or the National Popular Vote plan for president) that would first involve negotiation with the state of Virginia (hence the name "Potomac Compact"), but could include other states as well.
Senator Raskin's proposed compact would end having ugly districts, but more importantly end ugly representation and lack of competition. To end gerrymandering, states would agree to form independent redistricting commissions that are empowered to create larger congressional districts in which multiple candidates are elected.
The compact doesn't mandate a specific voting method, but if the commission adopts a multi-winner district, it must establish a method that produces fair and proportional outcomes. This means that in a district that elects three representatives, a majority of voters will always be able to elect two seats, but if more than about a quarter of the voters in the district support a candidate, they will also be able to win a seat. By allowing more than one voice to represent these "super districts," the new plan would break up the monopoly that one party or another has on representation in an area. Every voter would be able to participate in a competitive, meaningful election in November, and partisan outcomes would depend on voters, rather than district lines. It still would need congressional consent to go into place, but it would be Congress consenting to plans agreed to by the participating states.
Today over 200 local elected bodies in the U.S. use some form of fair voting. FairVote would suggest ranked choice voting be used in these super districts. Other permissible options would include the "open ticket" system and cumulative voting -- which Illinois used very effectively for several decades to elect their state legislature and which President Obama backed restoring in 2001.
Maryland and Virginia are natural partners for initiating the compact. The two states mirror each other in their partisan configuration. In 2013 Virginia elected a Democratic governor, but in 2011 Republicans gerrymandered districts and won eight of 11 seats. After a successful claim of racial gerrymandering, a new districting plan recently imposed by federal judges still gives them an edge in seven seats. Maryland in 2014 elected a Republican governor, but the Democratic gerrymander in 2011 gave them seven of eight seats.
You can see our analysis of these states' districts going into the 2014 elections and an example of fair representation plans for Virginia and Maryland. By mutually agreeing to adopt such plans, these states would each would have fairer results that would offset each other. Neither party might win or lose seats in Congress overall, but voters in both states could be empowered to elect candidates they support. Every voter would matter, no multi-winner district would be safe for one party, and nearly everyone would elect a preferred candidate in a fair reflection of each district's left, center and right.
A Model for Fair Representation Nation-Wide
The Potomac Compact is an excellent model that could be joined by other states to give voters a stronger voice on Election Day and fair representation. Thus far, the national narrative around redistricting reform has focused on taking the responsibility of drawing district lines out of the hands of politicians and establishing a more independent process, as done in Arizona, California, and Iowa. But while independent redistricting helps to prevent political corruption, within single winner districts they often do relatively little to improve fairness or competition in campaigns. When it's winner-take-all, most voters lose.
Senator Raskin's proposal is a model for the rest of the country, because it recognizes that in order to truly end gerrymandering, we need to do more than avoid ugly districts or change who draws them. We need to make voters matter in congressional elections. As Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, writes in support of fair representation voting, "Without competitive elections, the accountability mechanism connecting representatives to citizens falls apart." This is exactly what has happened in U.S. House elections.
As it is, most districts are fundamentally one-party elections. In November, 2014, FairVote projected congressional outcomes for 2016, finding that nearly nine in 10 House districts were safe to project for one party or the other fully two years before the next election. Without real competition in November, elected members need only focus on their primary voters, and don't need to listen to the other side. When a third of voters cannot reliably elect a third of seats, more independent minded voters can't elect someone to represent their views.The impact of this lack of competition on polarization in Congress has been stunning, and has had exceedingly negative effects on the effectiveness of the "People's House."
The case for fair voting in multi-winner districts has only become clearer. Last year, FairVote worked closely with a group of 14 scholars to evaluate 37 different electoral reforms on a variety of criteria, including enhancing competition and reducing polarization. Of all 37, ranked choice voting in five-winner districts was rated #1.
FairVote also co-hosted an event last spring called Democracy Slam 2015 hosted at American University's Washington College of Law, which Senator Raskin co-hosted and participated in as a judge. Of the reforms evaluated by journalists, scholars, and reformers, FairVote's plan to use ranked choice voting in multi-winner districts was again rated the highest -- especially on its potential to increase competition, decrease polarization in Congress and positively affect fair representation of women and racial minorities.
As the 2016 election season approaches, and voters continue feel as though their voices go unheard in electing the 115th Congress, state law-makers and activists alike should consider the Potomac Compact as a model for ending gerrymandering and ushering in fair representation and competitive elections.
To learn more about FairVote's fair representation plan for Congress, read our Monopoly Politics report, which highlights the winner-take-all problem facing U.S. House elections, and explore resources associated with our proposed Ranked Choice Voting Act.