How to Fix the House of Representatives
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) published an op-ed in the New York Times last week that points out a major problem with our nation’s government–the House of Representatives doesn’t actually represent the American people. Schumer is right, and our electoral system deserves much of the blame.
As Schumer mentioned in his piece, roughly a third of Americans are right-leaning conservatives, a third are left-leaning liberals, and a third are independents with moderate views. Schumer explained that because voter turnout is so low in primaries, the extreme ends of both parties or, the “third of a third” decide who wins in primary elections. The Tea Party is a prime example of this idea in practice. Roughly 10 percent of Americans identify themselves as Tea Partiers, so if the House of Representatives was truly representative, the Tea Party would have 10 percent of the seats. But because they are way more active in elections than more moderate Republicans, 144 of 435 current congressman, or 33.1 percent, support the Tea Party. It would be easy to just blame this problem on those who don’t vote. Unfortunately, the problem is much more complex than that. According to his op-ed, Sen. Schumer’s proposal to reform our primary system is to institute a “top-two” primary. In this system, all candidates run in one primary and all voters vote, regardless of party. The top two candidates then enter a run-off, or general election. This means that you may have a general election with two Democrats, or two Republicans, but no matter what, they will represent the district’s two favorite choices. However, this reform may not be enough.
The roots of the problem stem from gerrymandering and our first-past-the-post, single member congressional districts. Let’s start with the problem of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. Imagine a state that votes roughly 70 percent Democrat and 30 percent Republican. Under any definition of fair, roughly 70 percent of the state’s representatives should be Democrats and 30 percent Republicans. But this hardly ever happens. For example, I used an approximation of Massachusetts’s party breakdown for the description above, yet Democrats hold all nine of its congressional seats. Thirty percent of Massachusetts is not represented in Congress. This occurs because our congressional districts have only one member and are elected by FPTP, meaning the first candidate to break the 50 percent barrier wins the one seat and all those who voted for the loser are not represented.
Because the 30 percent of voters who are Republican are not concentrated in any one congressional district enough to break the 50 percent barrier, they have no representation. This may have been aided by gerrymandering–the process of drawing districts to favor a political party. But even without gerrymandering, Republicans in Massachusetts would be lucky if they won one or two seats. Where gerrymandering really amplifies the problem is when it creates completely uncompetitive districts, meaning one party is all but guaranteed to win it. This makes the primary election much more important than the general election. This brings us back to the issue raised by Sen. Schumer–the more extreme candidate often wins these primary elections, and then succeeds in an unchallenged general election. This allows the extreme 10 percent of voters to decide who represents the whole district. This is how our House of Representatives has become so polarized, and a terrible representation of the views of many Americans.
So, what is the solution to this giant mess? Unfortunately, Schumer’s solution has not been proven to work in the states that have already implemented it. This problem requires a more drastic solution, something called proportional representation. A detailed plan for a proportional representation system is described by the organization FairVote, but I will give you a simple version. Under this new hypothetical plan, there would no longer be single member congressional districts, but larger districts that would have either three or five representatives. The representatives would be elected using ranked choice voting, a method in which voters rank their favorite candidates. How exactly this would work is described here. But essentially, in these three or five seat districts, the minority party would have the chance for its voice to be heard. In a five-seat district, where exactly 60 percent of voters are Democrat and 40 percent are Republican, three seats will go to the Democratic Party and two to the Republicans. See the infographic below to see how this plan would impact a state with a party breakdown similar to Massachusetts.
Proportional representation is a system that distributes seats in a much fairer way than FPTP does. It will get moderates back in Congress and increase voter turnout, because voters will feel like they can actually elect someone who represents them. It will fix the House of Representatives by making its name match its definition–the House will finally represent the American people.
Matt DeWilde (@matt_dewilde25) is a member of the American University class of 2016 majoring in politics and considering going to law school. He loves writing about politics, reading, watching Netflix, and long walks on the beach. Contact Matt at staff@LawStreetMedia.com.
Featured image courtesy of [PBS NewsHour via Flickr]
Editor’s note: The author of this piece previously interned at FairVote.