The Structural Flaws That Are Killing Our Democracy
As President Biden’s agenda moves pitifully slowly through Congress, the flaws of the U.S. Senate are dominating the political discussion. Why do we afford California (population 40 million) and Wyoming (population 500 thousand) the same number of senators? Why do we currently allow the minority party to wield the filibuster for endless obstruction?
It is right to raise these long-overdue questions. Too often, citizens have remained unaware of structural electoral issues while the discussion stays confined to us political nerds. The truth is that the more we look honestly at the design of the American government, the more deficiencies we will find.
My hope is that we can deconstruct a few critical flaws and then evaluate possible solutions.
Single-member plurality elections
America’s electoral systems make us an outlier in the democratic world. Across the legislatures, we have single-member districts with “winner-take-all” elections for each seat. A candidate only needs a plurality (more votes than any other, but not necessarily a majority) to win the seat, while all other candidates receive nothing.
Duverger’s Law suggests that this design inevitably creates a two-party system. A vote for any party (i.e. Green, Libertarian) that is unlikely to draw the most votes becomes a waste. Indeed, while 38% of the public self-describes as independent, only two voting members of the House or Senate are registered as independents, and none are members of a third party.
Most other democracies use multi-member districts with proportional representation. This means divvying states into larger districts with bigger populations, with multiple seats (ideally 5 to 6) up for grabs in each district’s election. Let’s look at a hypothetical example to see why this system is superior.
Imagine five districts, each with the following partisan split: 41% Democrat, 40% Republican, 19% third party. With single-member divisions, Democrats would carry all five seats since they have a plurality in each one. But if we combined these areas into a large five-member district — using proportional representation instead of winner-take-all — we would see a reasonable 2–2–1 seat split. The graphic below shows how the election translates to the distribution of power under the two systems.
Single-member districts became the norm in the U.S. in the mid-1800s and became Congressional law in 1967, but they are not mandated by the U.S. Constitution.
Given our mathematically flawed electoral system, state legislators are incentivized to draw district lines that skew representation in their favor. When Republicans are in charge of redistricting, they try to squeeze a mass of Democratic voters into a single district to diminish their representation. If they can simultaneously spread GOP demographics across the other districts, they can win more seats even with fewer overall votes.
In a simple example, imagine a state with a 50–50 split of Republican and Democratic voters. If there are five equal districts in the state, the lines could easily be drawn to give one party four out of five seats (80% of the power in the legislature), as we see below.
This issue is not merely hypothetical but is an active and thinly-veiled form of corruption. Many U.S. districts currently have absurd shapes (like a salamander, hence the term) that shift the balance of power. For example, Rep. Dan Crenshaw’s district (Texas 2nd) — which has an R+4 Partisan Voting Index— looks like this:
Just below Crenshaw’s gerrymandered district is Texas’ 18th, a district made up of inner-city Houston residents with an 82% non-white population and a D+26 Partisan Voting Index. Despite more Democrats in the overall Houston area, these two districts send one Republican and one Democrat to Congress.
Top Senate Democrats have laudably sought to address these issues in the For the People Act, which would establish independent, bipartisan commissions to draw district lines with open meetings and public hearings, rather than party-affiliated politicians doing so behind closed doors. It also applies statistical tests to identify gerrymandered districts. Unfortunately, this bill is currently unlikely to pass (even without the filibuster) due to uniform opposition from Republicans and Democrats like Joe Manchin. Yet this defeat should not mark the end of the crucial fight against our broken electoral systems.
We should push for fairly drawn multi-member districts with proportional representation. To give third parties more viability, we also should demand ranked-choice voting, where voters can list candidates in order of preference. This system can become a bit complicated in practice, but it is broken down by FairVote here. Some places have begun using this system at the local level –– including for the upcoming New York City mayoral race –– and we should push for it at the national level as well.
Our Founding Fathers bequeathed many strong foundational ideas (like freedom of speech), but we must acknowledge the serious design flaws in their system of government. If our democracy is to survive, we need to re-write some rules.