By now, you’ve probably heard that Congress will once again be up for grabs this November. And chances are, you will feel like a helpless bystander, because chances are you don’t live in a district or state with an election competitive enough to matter.
If you are like roughly 90 percent of Americans, the congressional district where you live is already in the bag, safely tied up for the Ds or the Rs. Even if you are one of the “lucky” ones in a rare competitive district, you might not feel so lucky by Election Day. Prepare to be deluged with endless internet and television advertisements, flyers, and door-knocking volunteers from out of state. Get ready for bitter fights with neighbors over lawn signs. And settle in for when your new freshman representative gets voted out in another election cycle or two when the political winds shift slightly, once again.
There has to be a better way to hold elections. There is. We can move to a system of proportional representation, ensuring that every vote counts equally, and every voter matters.
It’s easy to blame gerrymandering, trotting out the old line about politicians picking their voters instead of the other way around. But much as we like to blame gerrymandering, that’s not the core problem. The core problem is more basic: when House districts only have one representative, but Democrats and Republicans live in different places, most districts will be naturally lopsided. And partisan fairness will depend on where voters happen to live. When Democrats live overwhelmingly in the cities and Republicans overwhelmingly live in the exurbs, the only competitive districts tend to be those at the boundaries, where the “density divide” goes from blue to red.
To understand the problem, let’s start with the state of Colorado, a state that has trended from purple to blue over the last few elections. This 2021 redistricting cycle, Colorado used an independent redistricting commission to draw districts. The commission drew four safe Democratic districts, three safe Republican districts, and one competitive district.
Like most states, Colorado has a concentration of Democratic voters in its central cities and a sprawl of Republican voters in the more sparsely populated rest of the state. Because Democrats overwhelmingly live in cities and Republicans overwhelmingly live outside of cities, it is difficult to draw many competitive districts that offer any semblance of geographic continuity. The competitive districts that do exist mostly look like the new 8th district in Colorado—they go from the suburbs of a major city (in this case northeastern suburbs of Denver) and extend into exurbs, crossing the density divide between blue and red.
At this point in the redistricting cycle, only eight percent of newly-drawn districts across the country are competitive. This lack of competition holds across states whether they use independent districting committees or not. In short: the paucity of competitive districts is not because of gerrymandering. It’s because Democrats and Republicans live in different places, and it’s not easy to draw districts that balance them.
Three decades ago, when the parties were not so neatly sorted by geography, roughly 40 percent of districts could be considered competitive. But as conservative Democrats gave way to conservative Republicans in the South and small-town America, and as liberal Republicans gave way to liberal Democrats on the coasts and in the professional-class suburbs, the number of competitive districts steadily declined. Voters have become more reliably partisan.
But back to Colorado, which has gone from a toss-up to a solidly Democratic state over the last several elections. Could the Colorado redistricting commission have drawn more than just one competitive district in the Centennial State? Sure. Let’s say the state settled on a map with two safe D districts, one safe R district, and five competitive districts. In a Republican wave year (and the electorate overall does tend to move in waves, predictably moving back and forth from D to R), the state would likely go 6-2 Republican; in a Democratic wave year, the state would likely go 7-1 Democratic. That is because, in our era of nationalized politics, swing districts all tend to break in the same direction.
That doesn’t seem fair either.
Here we get to the core problem with single-members districts: They simply cannot be both highly competitive and reliably fair. To ensure partisan fairness, most districts need to be safe for one party or the other. Otherwise the partisan representation of the state might swing wildly from election to election based on small shifts. Or, to think even bigger. Imagine if all 435 House seats were perfectly competitive. In a 52-48 Republican year, almost all would e 435 seats would go Republican. A narrow win in the popular vote would translate into hyper-disproportionate majority in Congress—devastating the political representation for 48 percent of the country.
But why do we have single-member districts anyway? Why are districts of roughly 750,000 people that rarely match up with other jurisdictional borders the appropriate mechanism of representation? It is an accident of history, lacking any theory or justification.
So consider something else: What if the state of Colorado held one statewide election for its eight House reps, and Congressional seats were allocated proportionally. That is, a 50-50 split in the popular vote would mean four seats for each party. Get closer to 60-40, and the favored party gets five seats. This is proportional representation, and some version is used in most advanced democracies, excluding the U.S.
One obvious benefit is that every voter in Colorado would count equally in the final tally, not just voters in the one swing district. Even with competition, the statewide delegation will fairly represent the entire state, instead of being prone to wild partisan swings likely with lots of competitive single-member districts.
But it gets even better. Now Republicans in urban areas and Democrats in rural areas can elect candidates who represent them. Apply this across the country, and Massachusetts Republicans and Oklahoma Democrats can have some representation as well. With proportional representation, more parties can emerge to represent the broader political spectrum. And by breaking the zero-sum binary of a single-member system, this expanded range of options can cool the heated polarization that is currently breaking our democracy.
Here’s the bottom line: if you’re frustrated this November because you feel like a helpless spectator while control of Congress is decided somewhere else, there’s something you can do. You can demand that Congress change the rules so your vote matters. You can demand that Congress end the ban on multimember districts that was implemented in 1967 and no longer makes sense. This would clear the way for states to implement proportional representation for Congress. You can also demand that Congress establish a commission to make recommendations on structural fixes to our democracy crisis, focusing attention on the need to think big.
But don’t just blame the gerrymanderers. Bad as gerrymandering may be, the core problem is the single-member district. And that’s something we can change.
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