11% Of Registered Voters Elect 80% Of The Congressmen — Why Congress Is So Horrible And How We Can Fix It

–David Grace
 A lot of people complain about the choice of candidates for President and the terrible way Congress acts or doesn’t act. They continuously say that politics and politicians are awful and they wonder why things are in such a mess.

You’re wondering why? Hello!

We’ve set up a political process that guarantees the mess we’ve got. It’s surprising to me that the mess isn’t worse given how we’ve structured our election system.

What’s The Country’s Political Makeup?

A 2014 poll found that 33% of voters either identify themselves as Republicans or lean that way; 45% identify as Democrats or lean that way; 20% say they have no preference between the parties and 2% declined to answer.

29% identified themselves as liberal; 24% as conservative and 47% as moderate. (Source: Republic 3.0)

These numbers are not absolute and different polls will give you different answers, but generally these numbers are in the ballpark.

The Curse Of Safe Congressional Districts

For a long time both parties have blatantly drawn the congressional districts in a way that guarantees the election and re-election of one or the other party’s candidates.

Even though only 33% of the voters in the poll identified themselves as either Republican or leaning toward the Republican party, 44% of all Congressional districts are safe Republican districts and are guaranteed wins for the Republican candidate. (Source: Nate Silver, Five Thirty Eight Article)

45% of voters identified themselves as either Democrats or leaning toward the Democrat party while 36% of all Congressional districts are guaranteed wins for the Democrat candidate.

Apparently, the Republicans have been more effective in gerrymandering the Congressional districts in their favor than the Democrats have been.

Either way, 80% of the seats in the House of Representatives are safe seats and are essentially guaranteed to be won by the candidate picked in the applicable party’s primary election.

There are 191 safe Republican House seats and 156 safe Democratic House seats or 347 total safe seats out of 435–80%. This leaves only 88 seats that potentially might go either way.

But 53 of those 88 seats are 5 to 10 percentage points more Republican or more Democratic than the national average which leaves only 35 House seats, 8%, which are really in play and 92% which are either totally safe or reasonably safe.
That means that 80% to 92% of Congressmen have little or no political reason to cooperate with the other party on any legislation or compromise or change their views. But the situation is actually far worse than that.

The Party-Primary System Guarantees Nominating The Most Extreme Candidates

If you’re a Republican running for re-election in a safe Republican district your re-election is essentially guaranteed provided you win the Republican primary. But, if you lose the Republican primary somebody else will get your job.

Each party’s candidate is chosen in a primary election in which (in most cases) only party members can vote. Only the most dedicated, committed, fervent party members (less than 20% of those registered to vote in the primary) show up to vote in the primary for House of Representative seats.

That means that the party’s candidate for Congress is almost always chosen by the party’s most extreme followers. They are the sort of people who don’t want compromise. They don’t want cooperation. They want ideological purity.

If you’re a congressman running for re-election, the faction of the party that bothers to vote in the primary election, less than 20% of those eligible to vote in it, will kick you out and elect a more extreme candidate if you don’t keep them happy.

This system guarantees that the most right-wing Republicans and the most left-wing Democrats will appear on the general-election ballot, and since almost every district is a safe district, the House of Representatives gets filled with the most extreme members of each party, none of whom have any incentive to moderate their positions and, in fact, they have a strong incentive to take even more extreme positions in order to keep their party’s true believers happy.

It’s a negative-feedback system that can only drive both parties to more and more extreme positions.

But even that isn’t the whole story.

Party Primaries Put A Tiny Percentage Of People In Charge Of The Country
This number bears repeating: Less than 20% of registered voters vote in party primary elections.

Less Than 5% Of Eligible Voters Pick 44% Of Our Congressmen

If 33% of all voters are either Republicans or lean toward the Republicans then 20% X 33% or less than 7% of all eligible voters actually vote in the Republican primary elections for members of the House of Representatives.

If the candidate who wins the Republican primary election gets 65% of the primary vote then 65% X the 7% of those eligible to vote who do vote in the Republican primary, less than 5% of all eligible voters pick the candidates for safe Republican seats.

Put another way less than 5% of all eligible voters are picking the congressmen who fill the 191 safe Republican seats in the House of Representatives.

Less Than 9% Of Eligible Voters Pick 36% Of Our Congressmen

If 45% of all voters are either Democrats or lean toward the Democrats then 20% X 45% or about 9% of all eligible voters actually vote in the Democrat primary elections for members of the House of Representatives.

If the candidate who wins the Democrat primary election gets 65% of the primary vote then 65% X the 9% of those eligible to vote who do vote in the Democrat primary, about 6% of all eligible voters pick the candidates for safe Democrat seats.

Put another way about 6% of all eligible voters are picking the congressmen who fill the 156 safe Democrat seats in the House of Representatives.

Less Than 11% Of Eligible Voters Pick 80% Of Our Congressmen

Because of the party-primary system coupled with safe seats, 5% + 6% = 11% of all eligible voters are picking at least 80% of the members of the House of Representatives.

And you wonder why Congressmen are extreme, unreasonable, uncooperative, and do a terrible job? Why are you surprised?

20% Of Eligible Voters Pick 0% Of Our Congressmen

20% of voters say that they do not lean toward either party, yet for the most part those voters don’t pick any candidates. In most states they cannot participate in either the Republican or Democratic primary elections so they have no say whatsoever about who gets those 347 safe seats.

In some states independents can vote in one primary or the other but (A) they’re generally apathetic and don’t bother and (B) even if they do decide to vote they can only participate in one of the two primaries, not both.

If they vote in the Democratic primary in a safe Republican district their vote is wasted. Unless they turn out in droves to vote in a Republican primary for a safe Republican (or Democratic) seat they are effectively shut out of the election process.

Yes, they get to vote in the general election but by then their choices will be either a very conservative Republican or a very liberal Democrat, and faced with two unpalatable candidates they will either stay home or they will be forced to vote for someone who does not represent their views.

Gerrymandering & Party Primaries Put Less Than 11% Of Registered Voters In Charge Of The Country

Gerrymandering combined with low-turnout primary elections has handed the Congress over to a tiny minority of the population (less than 11% of the registered voters) with the most extreme views, and it guarantees that there will be no cooperation or compromise between the candidates elected by those extreme factions.

A Fix For Gerrymandering

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way.

I suspect that in less than two weeks a team of engineers from Google could write a program that would re-draw the entire country’s Congressional districts using party-neutral criteria, e.g. city and county boundaries, existing neighborhoods, natural features (along a river or a lake), or regular boundaries such as squares or rectangles.

But that’s not going to happen because the parties don’t want to give up their safe seats. Unfortunately, fixing the Congressional mess goes far beyond creating party-neutral Congressional districts.

The Party-Primary System Is A Cancer On The Body Politic

As long as each party’s nomination process is controlled by a small minority composed of its most fervent members you are going to get take-it-or-leave-it elections with two extreme candidates, neither of which will represent the political philosophies of the majority of the voters in the general election.

We need a system that also works for the independents who comprise about 20% of all registered voters and for the moderates who compromise roughly 47% of all registered voters.

A Fix For The Party-Primary Cancer

1) One General Primary Open To All

One way to reform the nominating process would be to hold just one general primary election in which any registered voter can get on the ballot by obtaining signatures on a nominating petition.

I would suggest that the top four candidates who have obtained the most nominating signatures in excess of 2% of the eligible voters, plus the incumbent, would appear on the general primary ballot.

Each candidate who made it onto the primary ballot would be allowed to put any designation they wanted on the ballot after their name — Conservative, Liberal, Moderate Republican, Democrat, Middle-of-the-Road, Capitalist, Reasonable Citizen, whatever they wanted.

2) Weighted Primary Voting

Each voter could vote for two candidates with their number-one choice getting two votes, their second choice receiving one vote. The votes would be totaled and the top two candidates would appear on the general-election ballot.

This process would give candidates an incentive to appeal to the widest portion of the electorate as contrasted with the “true-believer” party-primary system which encourages candidates to appeal to the narrowest, most extreme section of their party’s members.

Increasing Voter Participation

The final piece of the puzzle is participation. No system is going to get us representatives who will take a common sense, reasonable approach to government instead of ideological and extreme positions if the majority of citizens don’t bother to vote and the election is left in the hands of the interest groups and true believers.

As long as only twenty percent or so of the voters participate in the primaries then a majority of that 20% who bother to show up will end up controlling the House of Representatives and picking most of the Senators.

1) Internet Voting

One thing that would increase voter participation would be to add an option for Internet voting in addition to absentee ballots and voting in person. For security purposes you would want to require something like a USB fingerprint scan to verify the voter’s identity when casting an Internet ballot.

If some public-spirited organization purchased USB fingerprint scanners in million-quantity lots and re-sold them at cost, the unit price would be very low.

Plug in the USB cable, run a simple program, and your fingerprint would get scanned and used as verification of your identity at the time of voting.

For details on how this could be done see my post: An Open Plea To Google: Build The Foundation For Internet Voting In California — A Blueprint For How Google Could Make California The First State To Offer Internet Voting

2) Giving Citizens A Tax Incentive To Vote

The second element of increased participation would be a financial incentive. You can give people a reason to vote by giving them a $10 tax credit for voting in the primary and charging them a $10 tax penalty if they don’t vote in the primary, that is if you vote in the primary you get a $10 tax credit and if you don’t you get charged a $10 tax penalty. The same would apply for general-election voting.


Instead of living with the terrible job Congress is doing:

1) Create Congressional districts that follow party-neutral, rational boundaries and communities of interest

2) Open up the races to non-party candidates and thus take the nomination process away from each party’s most extreme members

3) Adopt tiered primary voting so that the most widely attractive candidates make it to the general election ballot

4) Make voting easier and available on more than just one working day.

5) Give people an incentive to vote and a disincentive to skip voting.

These steps would break the super-liberal, super-conservative hold that a minority of true-believers have on Congress and it will give all of us the chance to vote for candidates who actually reflect our values.

Candidates chosen in this way will also have an incentive to keep a majority of the voters in his/her district happy instead of choosing to only please the extreme members of his/her constituency who control their re-election by controlling the primary process.

We Need A Real-World Test

Is there some state out there that will have the courage and creativity to adopt this plan as a test case? How about Vermont? Nebraska? Anyone?

–David Grace
 Read my other posts at: www.Medium.com/@DavidGraceAuth

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