Elected representatives should be accountable to voters. It is supposed to work like this: you, the voter, consider your options and choose a candidate who seems most likely to fight for policies you like. You vote for her and she gets elected. But if she doesn’t represent you well—say she votes against a health care bill that you favored—then the next time around, you don’t vote for her, and she may lose her seat. Representatives learn that they need to keep their constituents’ preferences in mind once they are in the capitol.
If your vote doesn’t matter in who gets elected, your representative isn’t accountable to you
But if your vote doesn’t have the power to elect a representative (see Part 2 in this series) due to intentional or unintentional gerrymandering (see Part 3 in this series), then no elected official is dependent on your vote. No one is accountable to you.
Here’s how it works with gerrymandered single-member districts: you, the voter, consider your options and choose a candidate who seems most likely to pass legislation you like. Say you are a conservative living in an urban area and you vote for a conservative candidate. He doesn’t get elected. Instead, a left-leaning candidate goes to the capitol as “your” representative and she votes for a health care bill you hate. The next time around, you (again) don’t vote for her and she (again) gets elected anyway. Representatives learn that they can ignore half their constituents. Indeed, they may need to, in politically diverse districts. Elected officials aren’t bad people or even bad representatives. It’s just that their constituents have varied views, and they can’t represent them all simultaneously. They have to choose.
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Alternatively, you are a Social Democrat or a Green Party enthusiast in an urban area. You consider your options and, seeing no viable Social Democrat or Green Party candidates on the ballot, you vote for the Democrat. You are incensed that he refuses to vote for universal healthcare and you vow not to vote for him again. But the next time around, you again have to choose between the Democrat and a Republican, and so, despite your vow, you vote for the Democrat again. Representatives learn they can safely ignore half their constituents.
When your vote matters, you can hold your representative accountable
The problems above can’t be solved by handing the district line-drawing pen to someone else. But they could be solved immediately if your district elected three representatives instead of just one. Imagine again you are a conservative in a left-leaning urban area, such as Portland, but this time your district gets to choose three representatives. Likely two will be left-leaning, but if even one fourth of your fellow Portlanders share your conservative views, you have the power to pick one conservative representative. He will go to the capitol as your representative, representing your geographical area and your views. And if he doesn’t vote for the health care bill you support, the next time around you can vote for a different conservative candidate who will represent you better. That candidate will know he needs to answer to you and other conservative voters in your district if he wants to keep his job.
In multi-member districts, more voters have the power to elect a local representative who represents their views, votes have equal power to elect, and all candidates and elected officials must pay attention to what their voters want.
Or imagine you are a Social Democrat or Green Party voter in a heavily left-leaning district electing three representatives. A Social Democrat candidate could snag one of the three seats in your district and vote for universal health care. If she doesn’t represent you well, the next time around a Green party candidate might vye for your vote, listening to your preferences and vowing to push for the solutions you want. Or one of the Democratic Party candidates might respond to voters and create a left flank within the major party. In any case, it will matter who you vote for. No seat will be safe simply because of how the district lines are drawn—every candidate will need to connect with voters when running and respond to them once in office.
Multi-member districts empower voters to hold elected representatives accountable
Voting is the way that voters hold elected officials accountable. But only if candidates actually need your vote to get elected. Gerrymandering saps voters’ power by wasting half the votes and protecting politicians in safe districts. Multi-member districts with ranked choice voting give the power back to voters. A federal bill—the Fair Representation Act—would elect all congressional representatives from multi-member districts drawn by an independent commission. Oregon’s five districts would become one district electing five members, and Washington would elect five members from each of two districts. Within these districts, each candidate would have to reach out to like-minded voters and those voters could hold him accountable. In Oregon, representatives Earl Blumenauer and Greg Walden couldn’t depend on crushing the competition with 70 plus percent of the vote; each man would have to pay close attention to his voters to win re-election when competing against multiple candidates. An incumbent would not continue to enjoy a 90 percent chance of winning because he would be competing against other similar candidates (maybe even other incumbents) who could poach his voters if he doesn’t keep his finger on the pulse.
Slaying the gerrymander
Voters are increasingly aware that the gerrymander saps their power (see Part 1). Single-member districts leave many voters powerless to make a difference in the election, and unrepresented once the election is over (see Part 2). Single-member districts deprive some voters—particularly those in dense urban areas—of equal voice in the legislature (see Part 3). And when voters don’t have the power to elect their representatives, they also don’t have the power to throw them out, meaning elected officials aren’t accountable to their constituents.
Unfortunately, no amount of prodding the gerrymander into a more pleasing shape can guarantee more power for voters. But multi-member districts with ranked-choice voting, like those proposed in the federal Fair Representation Act, or the possible ways of electing Oregon and Washington state legislatures outlined in this article, can slay the gerrymander for good. In multi-member districts, more voters have the power to elect a local representative who represents their views, votes have equal power to elect, and all candidates and elected officials must pay attention to what their voters want.