Undistricted Democracy

Okay, so while we are anguishing over election rules and gerrymandering (a ritual we do in the US every four years), it’s the prime opportunity to discuss what-ifs and might-have-beens. I’d like to share one of my favorites: representative democracy without districts.

The Problem with Districts

To my eye, districting is the fatal exploit to the democratic system. Even if everybody gets to vote, whoever divvies up where those votes counts has the real power. It’s trivially easy to gerrymander districts to make an actual majority into a functional minority.

And this problem can compound even further. A coordinated effort to gerrymander districts can lead to a sizable majority in power. When that group has already stooped to gerrymandering, it’s just one step down the ethics ladder into voter suppression. Gerrymandering allows voter suppression, and gerrymandering plus voter suppression kills democracy dead.

So if districts are the fatal flaw to democracy, how could we implement democracy without districts?

Now, a warning: what follows is some pie-in-the-sky dreaming, here. The pie is so high in the sky that it’s probably achieved orbit. For the US especially, I’ve no idea how to get there from here. Still, it’s fun to think about!

My pie-in-the-sky solution comes in three steps. I’m going to use the US House of Representatives as the running example.

Part One: elect all representatives at large

Obviously, the first step is to get rid of the districts. Instead of divvying up territory into districts which all elect one representative, we let the entire body politic act as a single district electing many representatives.

Presently, each state gets told how many Representatives they’ll get in the upcoming ten years, and then they divvy up their land area into that many districts. Each district elects one Representative. Instead of, say, Texas drawing lines on a map to make 36 districts in that state, all Texans vote on ballots listing all the candidates, and the 36 winners get sent to Washington.

Part Two: use ranked voting

While the simplest voting system is “one person, one vote,” this is by far not the best voting system out there. It is tremendously vulnerable to the “spoiler effect,” where too many similar candidates can tank each other’s chances of winning. This effect, iterated over time, mathematically results in a two-party system. Everybody “left of center” lines up behind one arch-lefty and everybody “right of center” lines up behind one arch-righty. Third parties get squeezed out, resulting in diverse voices being silenced and small but essential issues going unaddressed. Worse, when a duopoly gets established, that means there’s only two organizations to buy off instead of many.

Under a ranked voting system, you still get a ballot that lists all the candidates for office. However, instead of choosing one, you rank your choices in order of preference. You could, for instance, give your #1 slot to a candidate running on an environmentalist platform and your #2 slot to a candidate who is more mainline and more likely to win. This allows you to vote for who you like most, maybe with a ‘backup’ candidate if your favorite doesn’t win, instead of settling for the candidate who combines likelihood of winning with the least-disgusting platform.

You can rank the whole ballot of candidates, but this isn’t necessary. You can rank only those candidates you care about and the system works just fine. If you want to just vote for one candidate and no others, you can do that, too.

There’s some math that follows, which is why one-person-one-vote-winner-take-all systems are the simplest. There are a number of different ways to calculate the winner from here, but their results don’t differ all that much. We’d have to pick one method, of course, but which one isn’t particularly relevant here.

In broad strokes, the candidates who get a lot of #1 votes get elected, some candidates who have very broad support at #2 and #3 slots also get elected, and a lot of candidates who have a strong core of #1 slots and a good sprinkling of #2 and #3 slots get elected. This also means that you get a wider variety of winners. Sure, the big political parties will have big representation, but smaller, diverse, single-issue, and niche parties also get a seat at the table. When the actual governing starts happening, there are more voices being heard, and those voices better represent the will of the people.

So our Texan examples would queue up to vote for their state’s representatives. Each voter would get a ballot with all candidates–let’s say there’s an even 100. Each voter could then write in a number for each of those candidates. Their #1 candidate gets a one next to their name, #2 gets a two, and so on. A voter can go all the way up to 100 and give everyone a number, or they can stop when they run out of opinions.

With me so far? The first two changes are actually things that individual states could, if they wanted to, implement on their own. There’s nothing in the Constitution that requires districting or winner-take-all voting. The third and last change, however, is a doozy. It’s also the secret sauce that makes districts irrelevant.

Part Three: apportion representatives by voter turnout

Most representative democracies distribute their elected representatives by population. Whether or not you voted, somebody has been elected to represent you. However, it doesn’t need to be this way. We can instead apportion those representatives based on voter turnout. Where lots of people voted, lots of representatives are elected. Where few people vote, fewer representatives are elected.

Remember up above when we talked about voter suppression? This change directly targets these sorts of hijinks. In the US, a number of states have passed laws which make it harder for poor and minority citizens to vote. When those citizens don’t vote, their voices don’t get added in — but their state’s representation doesn’t decrease. This means richer, whiter citizens not only dominate the government, but they do so weilding the power apportioned to the citizens who weren’t allowed to vote. Modern voter suppression is the spiritual successor to the 3/5ths Compromise, where white elites are exercising power “on behalf” of disenfranchised black citizens.

However, if representatives are apportioned by turnout rather than population, that whole game shifts. Voter suppression results in your state getting less representatives. Suddenly it becomes in everyone’s best interest to increase voter turnout and re-enfranchise those who have had their votes taken away.

Presently, there is a total of 435 Representatives in the House, and every state gets at least one. Every ten years we do a federal census and update the number of Representatives each state gets based on population. It may seem a little counter-intuitive, but we can actually do the apportionment after the election, instead. It even uses the same math, just swapping in voter turnout numbers instead of population numbers.

So in our Texas example, you show up to vote for Representatives. You don’t know how many will be elected, but that doesn’t actually matter. You just rank the candidates in order of preference. When the voting concludes, the House Clerk totals up the voter turnout numbers and apportions Representatives accordingly. Maybe Texas had a low turnout and they only get 28 Representatives this term; the top 28 winners go to Washington. Or maybe there was big turnout and you get 40 Representatives! Now the top 40 winners go to Washington.


These pie-in-the-sky changes would yield, I think, a number of benefits:

Smashing the Duopoly: undistricted democracy does not have an in-built mathematical tendency towards two-party dominance. Instead, it broadens the possibilities, making any number of “third party” interests viable on their own. It means that single-issue candidates can make their voice heard. It means that extremists are less likely to hijack otherwise moderate parties.

Single-Interest Candidates: This system also allows for single-interest candidates with a focused reform agenda, whether that is campaign reform, abortion, or immigration. It would be perfectly possible to see a candidate stand up for a specific demographic or group, seeking their votes across the state.

Make-Your-Own Districts: While I call this undistricted democracy, I think we’d see the rise of ever-shifting pop-up districts. Candidates could stake their claim on representing a given city, for instance (assuming that city is expected to turn out enough votes for its own Representative) and campaign to represent that city. Candidates could just as easily represent rural swaths large enough to do the same. They can target their campaigning to those areas and, once elected, serve as the voice for that area. In the next election, they can run on their fidelity to those constituents, earning another term in office. Or, if they didn’t accomplish much, they and their “district” could fade away to be replaced by something else.

Coalitions and Compromises: Winner-Take-All leads to Duopoly and Duopoly leads to Gridlock. Under this system, the multitude of voices and constituencies would lead to coalitions of representatives united to pursue their common causes. Single-issue representatives become sought after and powerful, trading their vote on issues they don’t care about in order to secure action on the issue they were elected to tackle. Compromise and collaboration become the name of the game. And stuff gets done.


Confusion: admittedly, this is way more complicated than one-person-one-vote-winner-take-all and there’d be a lot of people confused about how things work, especially at first. However, I think it’s a system that would be easy to get used to. Campaign season has various candidates appealing to you on lots of different issues and through lots of different angles. You pick some favorites, and on election day you rank them on the ballot. Election Day media coverage would be a little wacky, with everyone trying to predict who was winning, by how much, and if they won enough votes to actually get a seat, but I think I’d kind of like to see the media do that scramble.

Who’s My Representative?: Under a districted system, it’s always clear who is supposed to represent you. You live in the 25th district, your guy is the Representative for District 25. Under undistricted democracy, that’s less clear. If you’re lucky enough to live in an area or count yourself a member of a demographic that has a representative claiming that constituency, you can appeal to them. If they plan on running for that constituency again, it’s likely that they’ll be more receptive than a present-day district representative, to boot! However if there isn’t somebody who campaign to represent a constituency that you’re a part of, it would be harder to find an advocate for your voice. This is the main reason I’d keep the undistricted voting of the House still “districted” to the states, so at the very least Texans can appeal to a Texas Representative.


There’s also a Presidential impact. Assuming nothing else changes, the electoral college takes its apportionment cues from the Senate and House delegations. If the size of those delegations were proportionate to voter turnout, electoral math becomes a lot harder to predict. That means a lot more states become swing states, and Presidential candidates campaign wider and take more issues and voices into account. Instead of focusing on the four or five states that they know will be key battlegrounds, they have to appeal to voters all over the map.

If undistricting the House worked well, we might see about undistricting further. It’s possible, though more than a little chaotic, to elect all the Representatives at large. The whole nation elects 435 Representatives! Of course, that would require voters to consider ballots with over a thousand names, and that seems more than a little overwhelming. Keeping state representatives also mitigates the Who’s-My-Representative problem.

I think a better option, however, would be to make the Senate elected in undistricted contests, at large from the whole nation. Imagine what diversity we’d see when undistricted campaigning cuts across state lines!

Conclusion (a Downer)

Of course, there’s no way any of this would happen. Apportioning by voter turnout would require a constitutional amendment. Such a reform would be opposed by every state controlled by antidemocratic forces, which is enough to kill it. Ranked voting is opposed by the established duopoly, who would lose out almost immediately. And without those two changes, abandoning districts doesn’t make any sense. So we’ll keep the fatal flaw… until it kills democracy.