Drawing the Line: Representative Democracy Needs Innovation

Getting Rid of Gerrymandering with Ranked-Choice Voting and Instant Run-offs

The Basics

Americans take democracy for granted, expecting that it’s always been there and always will be. But democracy is a relatively new system of government and the United States remains the oldest democracy in the world. Democracy can take many shapes from the American form to parliamentary democracy to constitutional monarchies to direct democracies. For democracy to survive in the US, Americans need to look at different versions of democracy and implement new or innovative forms of democracy to promote the will of the people, the fundamental purpose of democracy.

Direct democracy uses the popular vote to enact or repeal laws directly. Examples of this are the ballot initiatives and referendums that appear every year in local and state elections. For the most part, our republic operates as a representative democracy where we choose people to represent a group of us in a deliberative body to make laws. There are advantages and disadvantages of a representative democracy, allowing for the specialization of lawmakers and elevates individuals who can make connections with other lawmakers to come to a consensus more quickly. However, a representative legislator may go against the will of his or her constituents.

The United States Constitution establishes a representative democracy as the only method to write and enact federal laws. Each state has two Senators, and some Representatives apportioned among the population. The Constitution requires the apportionment of Representatives with a census every ten years determining where people live. The more populous the state, the more Representatives it has, so California has 53 Representatives and states like Alaska, Montana and Vermont have one Representative.

Though not mandatory the Constitution apportions one Representative per district, only one person representing a group. Not every representative election system uses this method. In city councils, there are often district members (representing only their district) and at-large council members representing the city as a whole. Nowhere is this one Representative per district required, but it’s widely adopted. When a state has more than one Representative in this system, district lines must be drawn to determine the composition of groups to be represented.

There are countless ways to draw district boundaries, and the US Constitution and Supreme Court has provided little guidance on the issue. The Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that partisan gerrymandering violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, but a majority couldn’t indicate how to determine what illegal gerrymandering was. In general, states have provided that the districts must contain an equal number of persons, be contiguous and be compact; two separate areas cannot elect one representative, resulting in strange districts like Illinois’s 4th congressional district. A majority of states require compact districts, without a real definition of compactness. Some states also require drawing lines along political boundaries like city limits and county borders when possible.

The overall purpose of this system is to represent the will of the people in law making and execution of those laws, the fundamental core of democracy. When these systems don’t allow the will of the people to be expressed due to inefficiencies or “gaming” the system, the election process is broken. The United States has a stable democratic structure, but more innovation is needed to further the will of the people in all aspects of self-governing.

The Problem

Gerrymandering is drawing of district lines that unfairly promotes a candidate or disenfranchises a group of voters. For the greater United States or even the individual states, the lines drawn are rigid, and it’s rare for these borders to change. Everyone in these votes for President and Governor and the winner of the majority votes (over 50%) or even a plurality of the votes (the most votes) is chosen. However, United States Representatives and state legislators represent districts and these districts change every ten years to reflect changing demographics. Either non-partisan committees or legislators or others draw these districts and the shape can help or hurt candidates. Both political parties have used gerrymandering to influence elections and help their candidates.

Imagine a district with 25 voters, divided into five districts. If there are ten red voters and 15 blue voters, ideally there would be two red candidates elected and three blue candidates elected. In a legislature or council, the blue party would win if voting along party lines.

Now, if the districts were drawn the other way so that each district has two red voters and three blue voters, every elected candidate would be from the blue party and would have an absolute majority in the deliberative body and would be completely unfair for the red voters. This process is called stacking where the districts are stacked, so the minority has no voting power.

The red party could also gain an advantage by the redrawing of districts. By strategically drawing the districts, the red voters could become the majority voters in three districts and the blue voters only a majority in two districts, though the blue voters have an overall majority. Splitting up the majority of blue voters across five districts dilutes the voting power of that party. This process is called cracking where the voting power of the party is cracked or split. Placing all of the voters of one type is called packing, and this dilutes their advantage by putting all the similar voters in one district.

The fundamental issue with gerrymandering is that it disenfranchises voters and is undemocratic, where district lines determine legislation and not actual voters.

The Solutions

There are several solutions for gerrymandering. A few states have implemented nonpartisan, independent commissions to draw district lines. However, making compact, contiguous districts is challenging. It’s difficult to know and consider all demographics in a region and draw lines that don’t disenfranchise some voter. Other places are turning to computers for making computer-generated districts that take into account many variables an individual can’t, appearing to be a fair plan, depending on the provided data. For example, the shape of a rural county with a large prison population may look fair on paper, but as prisoners are not able to vote in most states, this could skew the actual voting demographics of that district.

The real solution is to eliminate the drawing of district lines. States like Alaska, Montana and Vermont don’t have issues with Gerrymandering because the census allows only one representative to these states, the borders immovable. Abolishing the need for redrawn districts also eliminates the problem, which can be accomplished in a few ways: multiple representatives per district and alternative voting systems.

California has 53 legislators to the US House of Representatives. Even though California is a large state, 53 districts can range from the size of San Francisco to large chunks of the state. A smaller, populous state like New Jersey has several tiny districts crammed into the state, making it difficult to draw along political boundaries. New Jersey currently has twelve congressional districts, but can combine more than one representative one large district. Instead of 12 districts, there would be four districts of three representatives, making it easier to divide it by population, covering large portions of the state instead of tiny islands of constituents. In populous areas, this makes drawing the lines challenging because a constituent could have a different representative at the street or neighborhood level. New York City has 14 Representatives in Congress because the city is so populous and has a higher population that rest of the state of New York. Larger districts could have the same number of representatives in New York, but they would represent the city as a whole and voters would vote in the same elections as their neighbors.

Larger districts give more voices to one person. Instead of one representative, an individual constituent could have two, three or five representatives in the house. Larger districts might also give more options to smaller political parties, candidates with unique ideas and positions and new voices. If you are a voter who votes Republican, you might want to vote for a Republican candidate to maintain a majority in Congress even though you align more on libertarian issues. With larger districts of more representatives, you could vote for a libertarian candidate and that person might have a shot at winning a seat. Candidates are no longer polarized on particular issues but must represent the district as a whole.

Without encouraging more participation and less disenfranchisement, a voter who doesn’t like either the Republican or Democrat candidate is likely to stay home. But there may be options for more than one Democrat in a district, or more than one Republican, someone from another party or a combination of all caucuses. Having more choices gives voices to more people which inspires them to vote.

Alternative voting systems are critical to enact with this system like ranked-choice voting and instant run-off. In ranked-choice voting, candidates rank their candidate in order, depending on the number of candidates, and votes are cast based on the ranking.

One winner races eliminate candidates. For example, after eliminating the candidate with the fewest votes, the ballots cast for that person as the first choice, now are cast for their second choice. After eliminating the next candidate, ballots are cast for the second choice of the voters for that candidate and the third choice for voters who listed him or her as their second choice continuing until someone exceeds 50% of the votes.

Check out this video on youtube for a more in-depth explanation of the process:

For multiple winner races, candidates still cast their votes in order of priority. Voting continues until the required number of candidates exceed the finish line, where the finish line depends on the number of elected positions in a race. When eliminating candidates, votes are cast down the line, but if a candidate exceeds the finish line, then fractions of the votes for that candidate are split off and cast for the second, third, etc. candidates on their ballots. If there are three positions, each candidate will need over 25% of the votes to win.

Check out this video on youtube for a more in-depth explanation of the process:

There are numerous advantages to ranked-choice voting and instant run-offs. First, it eliminates the need for a primary election. This election serves as both a primary and general election. With the opportunities to rank candidates, all candidates are available, not just those put up by the major parties. Second, this allows more voices to be heard and no more wasted votes. A voter is free to cast a vote for any candidate, preventing wasted votes. If eliminated, a candidate’s votes are given to the next choice or choices. Third, third-parties, candidates from multiple major parties and minorities have an opportunity to win. If there are two Republicans in a district, voters may elect either under this process. Minorities don’t have to receive 50% of the vote, just cross the finish line, usually fewer than 50% of the votes. Minority candidates may never get enough votes in the one representative per district system, but with ranked-choice, women, people of color and minority candidates can harness the voting power to cross the finish line, giving more voices to the legislature than before.

Next Steps

If you’re tired of the options at the ballot box, change the system to get more options, more opportunities, more voices in our elections. As a democracy, we thrive on debate, deliberation and votes from everyone, not just the most powerful. Our major political parties have kept too much control on our elections for too long. Check out Fairvote.org for more information and how to get involved in these changes. FairVote is a non-partisan, non-profit organization for improving the election process to give more voices to our election.

Talk to your Senators, Representatives, legislators, council members about implementing these changes. These changes are challenging but possible if we convince everyone we need them. Some states have taken this step with top-two candidates and run-off elections, but we can go further. America is a brilliant, innovative nation, but our elections have stagnated over the past two hundred years.▪️

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