American democracy is not working. We have a president who lost the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots, a Congress that reflects gerrymandered district lines rather than the will of the people, and a voting system that discourages rather than encourages the high turnouts that are needed to achieve a genuinely representative democracy.
The Republican Party, which has benefited from this dysfunction, is in no rush to change things, as Ari Berman explains on page 18. Indeed, the GOP has at its highest levels facilitated the voter-suppression scheming and lies of charlatans like Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach via President Trump’s Orwellian “Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.” So it falls to progressive Democrats, independents, and third-party activists to champion democratic renewal.
For the Democrats, there are two ways to address this crisis. They can either carry on as they always have and hope that they get better at being an opposition party within a fundamentally flawed system. Or they can reject the failed status quo and propose to reform the system in ways that realize the promise of competitive elections and popular democracy.
Representative Don Beyer has chosen the latter route. In late June, the Virginia Democrat introduced the Fair Representation Act, a plan to democratize congressional elections with a bold reform that could also be used to bring real competition to state legislative contests.
Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, which has worked with Beyer, calls the Fair Representation Act “the most comprehensive approach to improving congressional elections in American history.” As FairVote explains: “Under the Fair Representation Act, all U.S. House members will be elected by ranked-choice voting in new, larger multi-winner districts. This system would replace today’s map of safe red and blue seats that lock voters into uncompetitive districts, and elect members of Congress with little incentive to work together and solve problems….”
For Americans who are used to the traditional single-member-district approach to electing the US House and state legislatures, this may seem like a leap into the unknown. It’s not. Communities across the country elect city councils, county commissions, and school boards on an at-large basis, effectively making cities, counties, and school districts into multi-member districts.
Under the Fair Representation Act, small states with fewer than six House members would elect all their representatives from one statewide, at-large district. In larger states, independent citizen commissions would draw several multi-member districts, each of which would choose three to five representatives.
By using ranked-choice voting, in which voters number candidates in order of preference (and votes for candidates who are eliminated for lack of overall support are redistributed to preferred candidates who have a chance of winning), these new districts would be far more competitive and likely to elect representatives of different parties. And by using targeted voting strategies, women and people of color could potentially win in regions that have historically been represented by white men. That’s a lot of democracy—more than most partisan Republicans, and a good many partisan Democrats, may be prepared to embrace.
But here’s why Democrats should take the Beyer plan seriously: It focuses attention on ending the curse of gerrymandering, while at the same time presenting the Democrats as a party that prefers honest competition to political gamesmanship.
The Republicans, with enormous support from billionaire campaign donors like the Koch brothers, have mastered the art of making elections noncompetitive. Americans hate the current system: They tell pollsters it is too influenced by special interests, too mangled by money, too deferential to political careerists, and too disrespectful toward voters.
The people are angry about gerrymandering. They want competitive elections and true representative democracy. (A 2013 Harris poll found that 74 percent of Republicans, 73 percent of Democrats, and 71 percent of independents object to the pro-politician, anti-voter methods of redistricting that now prevail in most states for congressional and legislative elections.) By supporting Beyer’s assault on gerrymandering, as well as constitutional amendments that would overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and guarantee the right to vote and have that vote counted, Democrats would go a long way toward making themselves the party of reform that Americans are looking for. It would be smart policy and smart politics for Democrats to offer voters the promise of genuine democracy they have long been crying out for.