The idea that a single person can represent an entire district is outdated and harmful to democracy.
The solution is to adopt the electoral system where every voter’s voice is heard: multi-member districts with proportional representation.
WASHINGTON, DC – Last night’s primary elections offer the latest evidence that America’s system of electing Congress is unrepresentative and deeply dysfunctional. Single-member districts with plurality elections mean that one person represents their entire district, naturally leaving giant swaths of the population essentially voiceless in Congress.
Most democracies use some form of multi-member districts and proportional representation, where candidates are elected in proportion to their party’s amount of support. But the United States still uses an outdated system that divides the country and fuels legislative dysfunction.
Four results from last night’s primaries illustrate these problems:
In MN-04 and MN-05, the Democratic primary is the only election that matters. ~58,000 people who live in MN-04 (about 9% of the district) chose to re-elect Rep. Betty McCollum yesterday, and ~57,000 people (about 8% of MN-05) chose Rep. Ilhan Omar. Both will skate to easy victories in the fall. Likewise, in MN-07, around 10% of the district chose to send Rep. Michelle Fischbach back to Congress, ensuring her re-election.
Here’s the problem: these districts are far more diverse than we like to think. While we typically think simply of “red” and “blue” districts, MN-04 and MN-05 have many Republicans, and MN-07 has many Democrats. But those are communities that will never see their chosen candidates elected to Congress, because when a district only has one representative, it’s impossible for voters to be represented proportionally. Voters who don’t make up a majority of their district are treated like they don’t exist. So are the people who didn’t, or couldn't, vote in the low-turnout primary.
One of the most aggressively gerrymandered states in the country gives plenty more examples of the same problem. Tiny percentages of the people who live in WI-02 and WI-04 – the state’s only two “blue” districts – just effectively decided who will represent each district in Congress. About a fourth of each district voted Trump in 2020, but those voters are left to effectively watch the electoral process from the sidelines, feeling frustrated and helpless to have their voices heard.
Democratic voters in most of the rest of the state will feel the same way in November. About 11% of WI-07 just effectively determined that Rep. Tom Tiffany will hold a seat where Biden won more than a third of the 2020 vote. The situations in WI-06 and WI-08 are nearly identical: Biden won 41% in each district, and a sliver of each district just sent Rep. Glenn Grothman and Rep. Mike Gallagher back to Congress. Neither has a Democratic challenger in the fall, despite plenty of Democrats living in both districts. Why would Democratic candidates waste their time and money when single-member districts ensure that the outcome is all but certain?
Every candidate in Connecticut House races ran unopposed in yesterday’s primaries, except in the CT-04 Republican primary. This doesn’t mean every race is predetermined: CT-02 and CT-05 should be competitive this November. But what’s certain is that most voters in Connecticut don’t have many real choices. The state’s delegation is currently 100% Democratic, even though Trump won 39% there in 2020.
It’s not healthy for a democracy to systematically leave giant swaths of its population entirely unrepresented in Congress. But that’s what single-member districts do.
Washington’s primaries were last week, but its closely fought contest in WA-03 ended last night. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, one of the ten House Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump last year, conceded to Joe Kent, who had Trump’s endorsement and who recently attended a rally in support of January 6 insurrectionists. WA-03 should be competitive this fall. But the many Republican voters there who sided with an extremely significant faction in their party – those who stood up to Trump – will now have to choose between a Democrat and an election denier in November.
In WA-03, as in the rest of the country, there are a lot more shades of voters than solid red and solid blue. But single-member districts suppress those nuances among the electorate, further dividing us.
There are many problems with America’s electoral system, and just as many proposed solutions. Some believe ending closed partisan primaries would solve the primary problem. But Minnesota and Wisconsin are open primary states. Washington has a top-two system. These voting systems simply don’t address the core problem with how we elect Congress.
The core problem is simple: single-member districts, by their very nature, leave too many voters unrepresented. Even when they aren’t intentionally gerrymandered, they prevent minority voters from having their votes turn into representation. That minority might make up a very sizable part of the population, but it doesn’t matter -- those voters will not have a voice. Proportional representation with multi-member districts solves this problem. With larger districts having more than one representative, political parties’ share of representation can be divided in proportion to their amount of support.
Yesterday’s primaries reveal what most democracies already understand: that single-member districts are a key cause of dysfunction and unrepresentation. Congress should move to adopt proportional representation, to make for a freer, more functional, more representative democracy.