House Judiciary Committee should take up Beyer’s Fair Representation Act next month
© Moriah Ratner

Every year members get to miss DC’s hot, muggy August. This pre Labor Day district work period is probably the most turbulent in America since 1967, perhaps even more so. Is there something that could be put on the committees’ calendar for September that could heal the partisan divide? 

The Cook Political Report’s update on House races is out. Only 68 of 435 House seats have any chance of flipping. For voters outside of these swing districts it’s hard to argue that their votes aren’t wasted. Either on the loser, as “surplus” votes for the winner, or “spoiled” to help your least favored candidate.

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HR 3057, the Fair Representation Act, was introduced by Rep Don Beyer (D-VA) in July. The House is currently elected from single member districts where the candidate who gets the most vote wins, even if they don’t get a majority. The proposal would replace this with multi-member districts elected proportionately to their share of the vote. 

The system is broadly called Proportional Representation (PR) and is the dominant way to elect legislatures in democratic countries. The FairRep Act proposes a form of PR called Multi-Member Ranked Choice Voting (MM-RCV). Voters would rank order their choices for Congress. In a five person seat, a candidate who gets 16.67 percent of the vote would be elected. Votes they receive over this amount are proportionately redistributed to other candidates. Here’s a handy YouTube video.

Proportional Representation is recognized as a better way to deal with diverse societies. Single-member districts “waste” many votes on the “loser” – those votes don’t translate into anything in the legislature. It’s even worse –votes can be “spoilers” electing the candidate you like the least. The 2000 Presidential election debacle in Florida and the election of Paul LePage as governor of Maine twice despite most voters rejecting him are but the most prominent examples.

With MM-RCV few votes are wasted. The spoiler effect is eliminated because voters are assured that if their first choice can’t get elected then their vote will be transferred to their next preference. The vast majority of voters would be able to point to one or more of their district’s Congress members and know that they helped elect them. Multi-member districts would be a spectrum of their community’s politics. Because candidates don’t want to alienate voters who may put them as their second or higher choice they’ll tend not to go negative. 

Single-member district elections “manufacture” majorities that voters don’t give them. In 2012 Republicans won the House despite losing the national popular vote. Some of this is due to Gerrymandering no doubt. (The FairRep Act also mandates non-partisan redistricting). But mostly it’s due to the very nature of the single-member district electoral system – literally the math of it.

Third parties would become likely. Green Party, Libertarian Republicans, and breakaway Bernie-crats immediately come to mind as groups that would get representation so long as they don’t alienate voters’ subsequent ballot choices preferences. Republicans would be elected from urban districts. Democrats from rural conservative areas. Nearly all congressional Districts would now have farms, cities and suburbs. Red District, Blue District distinctions would fade.

A Proportional Representation Congress would have to find consensus. This kind of coalition building is seen all the time in democracies around the world. The House would – compared with the skewed and winner-take-all electoral systems of the presidency and the Senate – be reinforced in its role as the ultimate body of “representatives” of the people. The standing of the Senate and the president would be diminished.

Several U.S. cities, notably New York and Cincinnati, used MM-RCV to elect city councils for a few decades last century. The system was so successful at electing minorities, socialists and Republicans that it was almost eliminated.

Proportional Representation would be revolutionary for American Democracy.

The House Judiciary Committee’s September calendar is not out yet. Many items relating to Russia, Charlottesville, and other issues that are roiling this county compete for the committee’s workweek. Let’s get this on House Judiciary Committee’s fall agenda and begin to heal the partisan divide.

Dennis Lytton is a transportation manager and consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is an activist with FairVote, a national advocacy group calling for electoral reform.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.