To understand the new Congress and the current dysfunction on Capitol Hill, we need to look beyond the individual personalities in play and beyond the 2022 midterms that elected them. At the heart of the dysfunction in Congress is America's redistricting process and the fundamentally broken way we elect representatives.
In this report, we look at the impacts of the 2022 redistricting cycle and how the single-winner districts that all states currently use to elect representatives are impossible to draw in a truly fair and equitable way. We point to multi-winner districts with proportional representation as a pragmatic and Constitutional alternative to this broken system.
Last year’s once-in-a-decade congressional redistricting process was a disaster. There were drawn-out fights over map proposals and cynical attempts at gerrymandering more nakedly self-serving and partisan than ever. There were disregarded deadlines, leaving voters unsure of who their choices were and candidates unsure where to campaign, sometimes until just days before their primary election. And communities of color, already underrepresented in the legislative process, had their votes diluted further just as the Supreme Court appears poised to strike down the last remaining protections for minority representation in the Voting Rights Act.
Our report on last year's redistricting cycle begins by assessing the results of the recent redistricting cycle. Here is what we found:
Defenders of democracy on the right, left, and everywhere in between need to grapple with this important truth: the way we elect Congress is fundamentally broken and in need of reform. Winner-take-all elections necessarily cause problems that can't be fixed within the winner-take-all system.
An election with only one winner is quintessentially winner-take-all: one candidate wins the seat; all others go home empty-handed. That may be what we are used to, but the zero sum, all-or-nothing nature of winner-take-all contests is a formula for distorted and divisive politics. In today’s nationalized and polarized politics, it makes gerrymandering easy and effective, drives us toward a rigid two-party system, makes competition scarce, and creates a toxic doom loop of escalating us-versus-them partisanship.
Under single-winner districts, in some parts of the country, every seat is safe for one party only. In the 2020 election, a third of the votes cast for president in Massachusetts were for Donald Trump, but each of the state’s nine congressional districts elected a Democrat. Likewise, in Arkansas, a third of the votes cast for president were for Joe Biden, but each of the state’s four districts elected a Republican. In any safe district, there are many voters who favor the minority party, and undoubtedly many who would prefer a different party entirely.
Single-winner districts are also the reason for America's entrenched two-party system. The high threshold to win in a single-winner district makes it practically impossible to mount a serious campaign outside of the two parties that currently dominate our politics.
In an earlier era, both Democrats and Republicans could compete more broadly. But the parties have now sorted by region – with Democrats living in cities and dense suburbs and Republicans living in the exurbs and more sparsely populated suburbs. This makes it hard for even the most fair-minded mapmakers to draw districts that are competitive while still being relatively compact and coherent.
Consider that in 2017, Democrat Doug Jones won a surprising victory against Republican Roy Moore in a Senate special election in Alabama, yet Roy Moore won more votes than Doug Jones in six out of Alabama’s seven congressional districts. Of course, because it was a Senate election, the vote totals in House districts didn’t matter. But had the exact same votes been cast district-by-district, rather than statewide, for Republican and Democratic congressional nominees, Republicans would have won all but one of Alabama’s seats with only 48% – a minority of the vote!
Single-winner districts are not inevitable. They’re not even normal. They are nowhere in the Constitution. Most large, modern democracies abandoned them decades ago and never looked back. Instead, most democracies use a system that is better for voters, better for governance, and better for candidates and political parties: proportional representation.
Proportional representation is an electoral system where a political party’s share of votes in an election determines how many seats it holds in the legislature. Instead of each district electing one representative, a state divides into larger regions that each elect several winners. If a district has three representatives and the vote is 65% for Republicans and 35% for Democrats, it would elect two Republicans and one Democrat.
Proportional representation truly puts the power back in the hands of voters. Every election is competitive, every result fairly tracks with the votes cast, and every political party wins seats not by manipulating district lines, but by earning votes.
This reform does not require a constitutional amendment. The Constitution does not require single-winner districts or any particular way of voting. In America’s earliest congressional elections, some states often elected their representatives statewide. These earlier elections always used a winner-take-all rule, allowing the majority of the state to elect every single winner, but bills to require proportional representation in multi-winner districts have been introduced all throughout American history, including most recently the Fair Representation Act, which has been introduced by Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA-8) each cycle since 2017.
The easiest approach to proportional representation is reforming the Uniform Congressional District Act, a 1967 law that requires states to use single-winner districts. This law could be changed with simple legislation to allow for multi-winner districts with proportional representation, making it possible for states to begin adopting this reform themselves.
Systemic problems demand systemic solutions. The failings of this redistricting process are unique to the single-winner districts we use to elect Congress. It simply does not make sense to continue on with the same system knowing that we will get the same dysfunctional results.