Here is an example of how lopsided things are. In November of 2012, in Washington’s 7th Congressional District, (Seattle) the Democrat received 298,368 votes to win the election. In the 3rd District, where I live, the GOP winner got 177,446 votes. The reason for this lopsided result is the single-member districts rule for US House seats. The bi-partisan commission in Olympia that drew the lines packed the 7th District with Democratic voters, and the result is a huge surplus of votes. In the 3rd CD, the Democrat won almost 40 percent but that accounted for nothing—as the winner takes all. In the end, all of these surpluses piled up to where it cost the Democrats—who won the most votes nationally—the US House.
Nowhere in the US Constitution does it express single-member districts with winner-take-all rules for House elections. The current rules are the result of political decisions by the elites who make them.
Winner-take-all rules also impact campaign financing issues. For example, Washington’s 7th and 3rd districts are so lopsided for one party or another, they tend to be ignored; while the handful of so-called “swing districts” get tons of money dumped into them. This is a great value for the special interests who tend to dominate campaigns because they only need to spend / amplify their voices in certain areas. All the while, voters in safe seat districts are spectators in elections that are seen as a foregone conclusion.
What Is It?
So what is Lessig’s plan proposing with elections? Imagine living in a congressional district where there are up to five seats elected. Among all of the candidates running in the district, a voter could get five choices on the ballot. They then can rank up to five choices for US representative. This system is called Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) or Single Transferable Vote. It is used in Minneapolis and Cambridge MA. Internationally, the Australian Senate, Irish national legislature and other places use it.
RCV allows you to express your favorite candidate as first choice, then your next favorite as second, and so on. With a three seat district, it would take as much as 20 percent of the vote to get elected. If no candidate gets that amount, they are eliminated and their voters' remaining choices are transferred to the other candidates still in the running. If a candidate does cross the twenty percent threshold, their voters’ remaining choices are transferred to the others still in the running. This surplus is distributed at a transfer value which is at a fraction reflecting how strong this elected candidates first choice support was. It is sophisticated, but what is important is, that unlike the current system, the surpluses are not wasted. Most voters win because the outcome is a proportional reflection of the electorate.
The Gerrymander is Dead
Indeed, RCV is a sophisticated system. However, it takes the sophistication away from gerrymandering political elites and puts in in the hands of the voters. In the places that use RCV, most voters rank their favorites then leave it up to the officials to count. Of course, the candidates, parties and others pay close attention to a counting system that is transparent and audit-able.
Here’s what the election could produce.
In a five seat district, there could be a conservative Republican, moderate Republican, moderate Democrat, conservative Democrat and third party / independent. It depends on what the district looks like politically. Again, it's up to the voters to decide. It is no longer about political elites arranging electoral maps to suit their selfish needs.
Parties can run slates where voters can pick and choose among all parties. For example, you can pick a moderate Democrat as first choice, moderate Republican as second, and move on down the ballot to rank all five seats if you want. You can vote third party / independent without any strategic worry because with no surpluses—there are no wasted votes.
The People’s House
Independent commissions drawing legislative districts alone will not solve the problems with the single-member district. We need fair representation voting to lower the barriers to election to the US House—and state legislatures for that matter. Lawrence Lessig is a national political figure who is talking real reform with how we vote. This makes him unique and worthy of support.