Grant Tudor develops and advocates for a range of reforms to shore up our democratic institutions.
In November 2021, then-Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, a Republican, signed into law new congressional maps that would, as before, give Democrats all nine of the state’s House seats — despite the fact that roughly a third of the electorate votes Republican. That is, although they constitute one-third of voters, Massachusetts Republicans would continue to have no representation of their choosing in Congress.
Why didn’t Governor Baker veto such obviously unfair maps?
As it happens, the Massachusetts district plan was indeed biased — but in favor of Republicans. According to PlanScore, a nonprofit that evaluates redistricting plans, in a hypothetically tied 50-50 election, the GOP would win 58 percent of the seats. Democratic lawmakers in the commonwealth had, in fact, drawn somewhat skewed maps, but to the benefit of the other party. The advantage notwithstanding, Republicans would remain locked out.
Back in 2019, researchers had a go at remedying the problem. In theory, with a third of the statewide vote, Republicans should be able to secure three of the state’s nine seats — or at the very least, one. And yet, while “there are more ways of building a valid districting plan than there are particles in the galaxy,” they concluded, “every single one of them would produce a 9–0 Democratic delegation.” Drawing something fairer was impossible.
Across the country, nonproportional results are pervasive. Arkansas’s four House seats are red, despite Democrats receiving a third of the statewide vote. Seven of Maryland’s eight seats are blue, despite a third of the electorate voting red. In Oklahoma, the five-seat delegation is red, despite a third of the electorate voting blue. Chalking distorted results up to gerrymandering typically isn’t sufficient. In Massachusetts, no amount of creative line-drawing would change the outcome. Even in states with independent redistricting commissions, the problem persists. In California, for instance, which has all but eliminated partisan gerrymandering, Democrats routinely get more seats than their share of the statewide vote would seem to merit.
That’s because the problem is endemic to the way the U.S. electoral system translates votes into representation. U.S. legislative elections are winner-take-all, meaning a single winner is selected to represent an entire district. If Democrats constitute 70 percent of the vote in a district, a Democrat will win the single seat available, affording the other 30 percent of voters nothing. Fair enough, maybe. But play that vote distribution out enough times across districts, as in Massachusetts, and political minorities across a state are shut out from representation entirely — while political majorities win everything.
Winner-take-all elections disproportionately punish political minorities and exaggerate the wins of majorities. With nine seats available, should a group constituting one of every three voters really get none? But the system does more than wrinkle our democratic intuitions. It is also dangerously warping our politics.
In our diverse multiracial democracy of more than 330 million people, there are only two major political parties. Those parties have carved the country up geographically into two predictable fiefdoms (Massachusetts is “blue,” Oklahoma is “red”); ideological diversity within each camp (liberal Republicans, conservative Democrats) has given way to more uniformity; and every two years presents an existential battle over vanishingly slim margins. If democratic politics is the practice of peacefully resolving conflict among competing interests — finding areas of “good enough” agreement from one issue to the next — then the hardening of two massive and immovable blocks is bad news for workable self-governance.
The political scientists John Sides, Chris Tausanovitch, and Lynn Vavreck have diagnosed this state of affairs as a calcification of politics: “American electoral politics doesn’t feel malleable,” they concluded in the wake of the 2020 election. “It seems set in stone.” The political scientist Lee Drutman terms it a “doom loop,” where for the first time since the Civil War era the national electorate is clearly sorted into two diametrically opposed sides. As one side digs in, so too does the other. A non-political scientist might just say: We’re stuck.
Among experts who study these issues, there is broad agreement on at least one way out. Last summer, more than 200 scholars penned an open letter on the merits of proportional representation for the U.S. House — a class of electoral system typically understood as the antithesis to winner-take-all and used by most of the world’s democracies today. In a 2021 survey of hundreds of political scientists, nearly three-quarters supported the reform as a way to improve American democracy, reflecting a sizable body of academic literature examining electoral systems — and cautioning against the risks of winner-take-all, especially in highly polarized societies like ours.
Proportional representation tends to basically do as the name suggests: ensure that a party’s share of seats roughly reflects its share of votes. It can do so thanks to one principal difference in design. Instead of a single seat per district, proportional systems feature districts with multiple seats allocated in proportion to votes. Imagine, for instance, that Massachusetts had three districts instead of nine, each with three seats allocated proportionally. Republicans would likely win one seat in each district and thus a third of the overall delegation. Massachusetts is “in a bad place,” a Boston Globe staffer wrote last year. Proportional representation could “inject new life into its politics.”
On their face, winner-take-all and proportional representation simply differ in the proportionality of their respective outcomes. How much could that matter? As it turns out, quite a lot. Scholars have long documented how the different systems generate very different downstream effects, profoundly shaping the nature of a country’s politics. A country’s electoral system is an institutional choice, and according to political scientists, probably among the most consequential. Consider three such ramifications in the United States today.
First, winner-take-all is depressing competition between the major parties. Among the more striking takeaways from Massachusetts is that not a single district is considered competitive. The state is only slightly ahead of a national trend: In fewer than one in ten House districts do both parties have a reasonable chance of winning the seat. The phenomenon is driven largely by the geographic sorting of “red” and “blue” voters. As partisans cluster — Democrats living in more urban areas, Republicans in more rural ones — districts become more lopsided. Gerrymandering can aggravate the problem. But unlike proportional systems, single-seat districts are uniquely sensitive to both sorting and gerrymandering. After a voter group becomes 55 to 60 percent of the electorate, single-seat districts become “safe” for the dominant party. With little chance of success, the minority party justifiably pulls back, making the district even safer. To remain competitive, districts must be drawn to almost perfectly balance partisans — which, as sorting intensifies, becomes practically impossible.
As districts become safer, representatives face fewer incentives to work across the aisle, while the risks of dealmaking become more significant — in part because as general elections become a fait accompli, competition shifts to primary elections, where the fear of a successful challenge can pull incumbents to the extremes. And because each side has roughly 200 safe seats, leaving only a small and shrinking number of competitive races as battlegrounds, control of the House is always just within reach — encouraging both parties to stay the course.
Second, winner-take-all is suppressing political diversity within each major party. Consider what it means to have no Massachusetts Republicans in Congress. As a news article from earlier this year observed, “Massachusetts Republicans are teetering on the brink of electoral extinction.” Of course, that’s not really true; a Republican has won six of the last nine gubernatorial races. While there are quite a few Republican voters across the state, winner-take-all elections simply fail to translate their share of the vote into a commensurate share of congressional seats. Republicans from the Northeast have traditionally paired fiscal conservatism with more socially progressive politics, creating opportunities in Congress for creative dealmaking with Democrats. That such dealmaking is harder to come by now is at least in part explained by the inherent disadvantage winner-take-all rules place on political minorities.
While Democrats are less ideologically homogeneous today than Republicans, something similar can be said of them. A quarter of adults in Alabama, Louisiana, and South Carolina who identify as Democrats also consider themselves conservative. Across the South, conservative Democrats are routinely competitive in statewide elections. Yet the Democratic Party on Capitol Hill features few conservative voices. Winner-take-all elections prevent Democrats in those states from securing representation commensurate with their numbers. In each of the Alabama, Louisiana, and South Carolina delegations, Democrats have secured only a single seat, or around 15 percent of the seat share, despite constituting nearly 40 percent of the vote.
Ideological diversity is not the only casualty. While a third of the adult population in Massachusetts is nonwhite, the state seated its first and only representative of color to the U.S. House in 2019. Just as winner-take-all rules disadvantage political minorities, so too do they tend to systemically undermine the electoral power of racial minorities. Consider a state where 30 percent of voters are Black and tend to vote cohesively. If that same vote share is consistent across districts, Black voters are unlikely to ever elect a candidate of choice — no matter how many seats are up for grabs across the state. Only if voters with shared interests are sufficiently clustered, and lines deliberately drawn around them, can they potentially seat a representative of their choosing. Under winner-take-all rules, representation is not just a function of the number of votes, but of the spatial distribution of votes. “If we’re a quarter of the population, we should be a quarter of the seats,” reflected Representative Terri Sewell of Alabama during this past redistricting cycle. Instead, Sewell is the state’s only Black (and only Democratic) member out of seven.
Third, as politics hardens, winner-take-all elections stymie the ability of unhappy political factions — those feeling unrepresented by either party — to find representation elsewhere. That is, winner-take-all insulates the system from new parties altogether. In single-seat districts, voters typically opt to support a major party with a real chance of winning the only seat available rather than “waste” their vote on a minor party candidate. The result is usually a two-party system. By contrast, proportional systems are typically multiparty systems. With multiple seats in a district, more parties have a viable chance of success. According to one study, the United States features among the world’s strictest two-party systems — the only democracy, in fact, that did not see a single new major party emerge in the twentieth century.
Compared to more proportional ones, winner-take-all systems are associated with higher levels of polarization, including affective polarization, or feelings of animosity toward the other side. They are at greater risk of ethnic violence. And they more commonly exhibit certain indicators of antidemocratic extremism, like decreased trust in democratic institutions among electoral losers. The reason probably lies in the nature of conflict structured by two-party systems, where voters are shuffled into one of two competing camps. It risks what the journalist Amanda Ripley calls “high conflict,” where “discord distills into a good-versus-evil kind of feud, the kind with an us and a them.” In multiparty systems, by contrast, coalitions of parties emerge, then shift, maybe get scrambled by some big event, dissipate, and reemerge differently. Opponents today become partners tomorrow.
The rigidity of our party system, a consequence of our electoral system, has thwarted realistic prospects for new parties to disrupt what is now an evidently dangerous dance. When politics hardens — when competition evaporates, when dominant factions snuff out diversity, and when unrepresented factions have nowhere to go — democracy is less able to adapt, to respond to big challenges, to accommodate the complex and changing preferences of a giant, diverse electorate. Instead, it turns on itself.
Plates have long been shifting under the ground of American politics. The nationalization of politics, escalating polarization, and geographic sorting are all structuring new and dangerous fault lines. Winner-take-all is not the lone villain. But the system strains to absorb these forces — and instead exacerbates them. Given that its outcomes are so dependent upon where voters live, winner-take-all is poorly equipped to preserve competition as partisans sort themselves. By disproportionately punishing political minorities in a state, it deprives parties of regional, and thus often ideological, diversity. When political minorities are also racial minorities, implications for representation are especially troubling. And by dividing the country into only two partisan camps and inhibiting the emergence of any other options, it is doing our polarized politics no favors.
Proportional systems take aim at these failings. They tend to inject more competition into politics by structurally decreasing the share of “safe” districts. In multiwinner races, where voters live and how lines are drawn around them simply matter less, minimizing the importance of sorting and the ability to gerrymander. Whereas a single-seat district with 40 percent Democrats is “safe” for Republicans today, in a five-seat district with the same overall partisan makeup, Democrats could seriously compete for and likely win at least two seats. Expect Massachusetts Republicans and Oklahoma Democrats on Capitol Hill.
Implications for racial minorities are also potentially significant. Modeling of proportional representation in the United States, comparative research, and evidence from experiments in local U.S. jurisdictions have found that racial minorities tend to successfully elect more candidates of choice when freed from the constraints of winner-take-all. One model of proportional representation for Massachusetts and its nine congressional seats estimates that people of color — who constitute a third of the electorate — could likely seat three candidates of choice, if not four or five, reflecting their real voting power. Additionally, research has shown that other traditionally underrepresented groups, including women, tend to more successfully contest seats in multiwinner races.
And of course, we could expect a different kind of Congress. Those Massachusetts Republicans might find their way to the U.S. House, but perhaps instead as representatives of the new Pro-Business and Democracy Party. As the Republican Party in Massachusetts has lurched rightward, many conservatives in the state feel isolated and in practice have nowhere to go. Under proportional rules, the door would open for new parties to form and realistically contest seats. Indeed, it is this feature that seems to excite advocates and concern skeptics most. There are extreme examples like Israel, where more than a dozen parties fracture the political landscape. (This is a predictable result of Israel’s unusual system, which treats the whole country as a single district for all 120 representatives, rather than creating various multimember districts.) But most proportional systems exhibit more modest multiparty activity: Since the mid-1990s, with its switch from winner-take-all to a more proportional system, New Zealand’s two major parties have remained the largest, while a few minor parties have secured a small share of seats. According to one prevailing model, an average of five to ten seats per district would probably yield around three or four nationally competitive parties in the United States.
The political path to proportional representation may be difficult, but the statutory changes required are not complicated. In 1967, Congress enacted the Uniform Congressional District Act (UCDA), which codified in federal law the universal use of single-member districts for U.S. House elections. The statute was mostly a legal formalization of an on-the-ground reality. Nonetheless, by establishing a single-member mandate, the UCDA also foreclosed the opportunity to experiment with proportional alternatives. Much of the democratic world has since taken a different turn. For decades, the transition to more proportional systems has marked the most significant electoral system change among democracies. The United States is now in the minority, wedded to winner-take-all by law.
That law, like any, is ours to change. As we detail in a recent report, Congress could amend the UCDA to provide states with the ability to explore proportional systems within certain bounds. The policy questions are not novel — most of the world’s democracies grapple with them, providing lots of data to inform experimentation — but the decisions certainly matter. For instance, any proportional system must have multiple members per district. But how many? Three to five? What about eight to ten? The decision directly influences the proportionality of results and the number of competitive parties we would expect to emerge. What about states that have only a single representative, like Wyoming? Should we expand the size of the House so as to not leave those states behind? States are also free to experiment with proportional systems for their own legislatures, with some advocates already pushing for state-level reform.
Of course, policy decisions are downstream of public attitudes, and proportional representation may not yet be at the proverbial American dinner table. And yet Republicans in Massachusetts probably intuit that something is the matter.
The calcification of American politics is more a reflection of our institutions than of us. California is not “blue” — it is home to more registered Republicans than any state in the union. Texas is not “red” — it is home to more Democratic voters than either New York or Illinois. In not a single U.S. state does more than half the population identify as conservative, liberal, or moderate. And a majority of Americans think neither party adequately captures their preferences; most want other options. The crude outputs of our outdated electoral system obscure an underlying complexity.
That complexity should be a gift to democratic politics. If we were, in fact, an electorate reduced to one linear dimension of political conflict — wholly captured by two hardened partisan affiliations — prospects for solving big problems would be dim. But we are not. With so many different and overlapping interests at play, the possibilities for creative coalitions and dynamic policymaking are abundant. Realizing those possibilities is possible if our electoral system would only dare to permit it.
This piece originally appeared in For A Better Democracy: Proportional Representation, a symposium published by Democracy Journal in partnership with Protect Democracy and with support from Democracy Fund.
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