It’s not just the Oscars — Congress needs a representation reboot

Few topics survive the gauntlet of an ever-changing, 24-hour news cycle. Even fewer remain relevant after a full week.

But a full four years after the original #OscarsSoWhite tweet exploded into a burgeoning social movement, discussion of diversity (or lack of) continues to frame The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and its awards ceremony. Even the array of “firsts” represented in this year’s crop of Oscars nominees comes with a dose of criticism.

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The concern is legitimate — both nominees and the members themselves remain primarily white and male. In fact, even if all 928 invitees asked to join the ranks last year said “yes,” among the overall membership, women still would comprise a little less than a third of The Academy and non-white members, a mere 16 percent.

That’s not so different than our Congress, which despite the much-celebrated diversity of the newest class, remains a far cry from the gender and racial makeup of its electorate. Women represent nearly a quarter of the 116th Congress, while racial minority representation stands at about 22 percent. How does this fare with the national demographics, you might ask? The latest estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau: 13 percent African-American, 18 percent Hispanic or Latino, and half female.

So why isn’t #CongressSoWhite (and male) trending on Twitter?

Because even more than the “Best Picture” winner, the “People’s House” should reflect the diversity of viewpoints, backgrounds and experiences of its constituents.

Multi-winner, ranked choice voting offers an easy, proven solution to increasing representation of women and people of color, both at the ballot box and in the halls of power.

Instead of limiting voters to a single choice, let’s give them the freedom to rank their preferences in order of choice. And rather than expecting a single winner to represent the full diversity of voters’ viewpoints and voices, allow for multiple winners who together can encompass the breadth of experiences and backgrounds of their electorate.

Count the first choices; if a candidate has enough votes, he or she wins, as with any election. The percentage of votes required depends on how many seats are up for election — the more seats there are to fill, the lower the threshold needed to win. For example, in a three-winner race, a candidate must win more than 25 percent of the vote to be elected.

If a candidate wins with more votes than the election threshold, but not all seats have been filled, any extra votes count proportionally toward voters’ next choices. For example, if a candidate receives 10 percent more first choices than what was needed to win, then a tenth of each of his or her supporters’ votes counts toward the next choices.

If there are still open seats based on first choices alone, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and voters who picked that candidate have their votes count for their next choice. This continues until all seats are filled.

It’s a winning combination easily enacted by Congress under the Fair Representation Act — no constitutional amendment required — that guarantees voters in both the majority and minority can help elect the candidates they feel best represent them. And without fears of vote-splitting or “spoilers,” candidates traditionally at a disadvantage in a single-choice system can legitimately compete, even band together to boost their chances.

Consider Cambridge, Mass., which has used multi-winner, ranked choice voting to elect its city council and school board members since 1941, enabling African-Americans to have a consistent presence in government and, more recently, leading to representation for members of the LGBTQ community. Meanwhile, more women and people of color have won seats in four Bay Area cities since the adoption of ranked choice voting.

The Academy, too, has relied on this voting method to ensure representation of different genres, themes and storylines among its nominees, a practice that dates to the 1930s.

Of course, who gets to vote matters, too, as evidenced by the absences of women, Asians and other key demographic groups in this year’s Oscar nominations. But while the Academy’s struggles reflect the issues of its voting membership, rather than its election method, Congress’s dilemma is just the opposite.

We have the voters and, increasingly, the candidates, ready to make the People’s House look and feel like the people themselves. All we need is the voting method to bring those voices to Congress — and perhaps a clever Twitter hashtag to make the message stick.

Sangita Sigdyal is managing director at FairVote, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Maryland that advocates for electoral reforms including ranked choice voting.