Author’s note: This is a summary of a four-part series called “Slaying the Gerrymander.” You can read the full series here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.
Let’s say you are a governor and you want to end gerrymandering in your state for good. You believe in representative democracy—that voters should choose their representatives, rather than politicians choosing their voters. You’ve heard of nonpartisan and bipartisan redistricting commissions and computer algorithms, but you’ve also heard that voters’ self-sorting might bias the maps, no matter who draws the lines. What should you do?
You should ask an independent commission to draw multi-winner districts and use a fair voting method. Proportional representation is the only way to guarantee voters wield equal power and win fair representation.
Think of the legislature like beer, not baseball
You might be thinking of political races like sports matches. “One team wins, the other loses. That’s just life.” This analogy works when electing a president or governor—only one candidate can win. But electing a legislature is more like ordering a bunch of beers for a group of people watching the baseball game. If each table is only allowed to order one kind of beer for the whole table, half or more of the people at the table won’t get a beer they like. That’s not just life. It’s a silly way to order beer.
Instead, each table or group of tables could order three or four kinds of beer. Now all pale and dark drinkers will have access to a cold one they like, no matter which table they’re at. And, given more than two options, maybe enough people want a lager or a honey ale and they could share a pitcher between them.
Patrons in a one-beer-per-table establishment will get annoyed, and voters in a single-winner-district might start to lose faith in representative democracy. But you could use multi-winner districts and fair voting methods to give voters the power to elect a representative they want, no matter where they live.
Voters’ values should matter more than their geography
Single-winner districts guarantee just one type of representation: geographical. Every voter knows she has one representative in the legislature with a home address not too far from her. But in a complex and diverse state, that might not mean much. Living in the vicinity gives no guarantee that a candidate shares a voter’s values, worldviews, and priorities.
Both conservatives and progressives live in every neighborhood and region, meaning a local representative can’t possibly represent all local voters’ values. Imagine your state has 100 voters, 54 of whom lean Democratic and 46 percent lean Republican. Voters elect an 11-member legislature. An independent commission or a computer algorithm draws 11 districts as compactly as possible. Democratic voters tend to live in the urban area of the state and elect like-minded legislators, but even so, 30 percent of Democratic voters end up represented by Republican legislators, while 20 percent of Republican voters are represented by Democrats. Not only that, but Republicans will dominate the legislature even though most voters are Democrats.
Ironically, the only way for you, Mr. or Ms. Governor, to give more voters in your state the power to elect a legislator they like is to gerrymander the lines. Imagine the same state with the voters living in the same places, but now you order the redistricting commission to draw crazy-shaped districts to group like-minded voters together. In this hypothetical state, a commission or computer could ensure that 89 percent of voters have a representative they agree with. The legislature overall will reflect the voters, but a few voters still get left out, and the map won’t be pretty.
You wanted to get away from gerrymandering, but your attempt to give voters a voice in single-winner districts has led you right back to gerrymandering! What’s a governor to do? Abandon single-winner districts in favor of multi-winner districts and fair voting.
Voters want to see themselves reflected in their representatives
Single-winner districts ensure geographical diversity, but will a geographically diverse legislature also reflect voters’ diversity in terms of race, class, gender, and life experience?
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Clearly not. The United States and Canada both prioritize geographical diversity by using single-winner districts, and as a result they rank number 100 and 63 in the world, respectively, in the percentage of women who hold office in their national legislatures. Rwanda, Nicaragua, Mexico, South Africa, Namibia, and other countries using multi-member districts all have more than 42 percent women legislators, compared to 19 percent in the United States and 26 percent in Canada.
Your state could join the many jurisdictions with more diverse and reflective governing bodies by using multi-winner districts and proportional voting methods.
Give all voters equal voice, no matter where they live
Prioritizing geography above all else has another sinister side effect: it makes some voters more powerful than others. This result violates the principle of “one person, one vote,” but it is an unavoidable bug of single-winner districts, no matter who draws the lines.
Unequal voting power plays out in two main ways. First, in the United States, single-winner districts systematically give conservative suburban and rural dwellers more voting power than progressive urbanites. Candidates in dense urban districts win by higher margins, giving those voters less power per voter to elect a representative, compared to more conservative voters dispersed across many districts with closer margins.
Second, most districts are “safe” for one party or the other, meaning the real race is the partisan primary. In a “safe” Democratic district, two Democrats face off in a fierce primary fight, and whoever makes it to the general election is assured victory. In effect, partisan primary voters (who tend to be older, whiter, and more conservative than the general population) have a say in who wins but general election voters’ voices don’t matter. Even in a state such as Washington that uses nonpartisan, “top-two” primaries, usually one candidate from each major party makes it to the general, where the candidate from the dominant party is all but guaranteed the victory. In ‘top-two” districts that lean overwhelmingly towards one party, two candidates from that party might make it to the general, giving general election voters a chance to weigh in on a real race.
You, the governor, could implement multi-winner districts and proportional representation to make sure a voter is a voter, no matter where she happens to live.
Choose any of these fair voting methods
There are many candidate-centric proportional methods. Here are three you could consider, and how they might work with five districts that are combined together into a single five-winner district:
- Ranked ballots. Instead of seeing (probably) just two candidates on the general election ballot, and filling in a bubble for one of them, voters see more candidates on the ballot, perhaps ten, and get to rank them. The top five win seats.
- Cumulative ballots. Voters can distribute three votes as they want—giving all three to one favorite candidate, for example, or giving one to each of three candidates. The five candidates with the most total votes win seats.
- Open List ballots. Ten to twelve candidates are listed on the ballot by party. Voters can vote for any candidate. The top five candidates win, and each party wins a share of seats proportional to its share of votes.
Imagine again that hypothetical state with the same 100 voters. Instead of ordering a commission to draw 11 single-member districts, you ask it to draw three multi-member districts with one of the voting methods described above. Voters who previously felt forced to vote for “the lesser of two evils” between the two major parties might now express their true preferences for the Greens or the Libertarians. And every single conservative voter and all left-leaning voters would have at least one representative who thinks as they do, no matter what part of town they live in.
Break free from the single-winner trap
You could spend the rest of your career trying to find the right commission or mathematical formula to draw lines that will give voters a voice, and you’ll go to the grave wondering why it never worked. But if you shake off the idea that each district should have just one representative, you can immediately improve representative democracy in your state. With more than one winner per district, and a fair voting method, all voters will wield equal power and win fair representation.
Your Research is hogwash. Ranked voting just means that in the the City of
Seattle we will have to vote for candidates on 2 levels by popular vote and
by ranked votes. Way open to fraud and confussion ! I dont think their is
a problem. I will vote NO along with my neighbors. I know that Charter Admendments
r not on the ballot in non city election years ! State Law!
Ranked voting in Seattle will create 2 systems of voting in Seattle in the same
Reasonable people can disagree about some of the details here, but “hogwash” is overly dismissive. Gerrymandering is a well established problem that renders a huge percentage of elections predictable years in advanced. Instead of voters picking their leaders, their leaders pick their voters. This has devastating consequences for democracy.
Like you, I’m sensitive to the issue of voter confusion as well. I co-founded the Center for Election Science, which promotes simpler systems like Score Voting and Approval Voting. I’ve vehemently disagreed with Kristin on a great many things. But there’s ample precedent for using different systems concurrently on the same ballot, both in the US and elsewhere. We know what the effects are, and they’re really not that severe.
There are also other ways to address Gerrymandering, such as Warren Smith’s “shortest splitline algorithm”, discussed here.
While I’d love to see districts drawn via some objectively defined algorithm, there’s really no political momentum on that front. Whereas proportional representation is a well established practice in virtually the entire democratic world—even here in the USA in places like Cambridge, MA.
Like all complex policy matters, there are a number of pros and cons to consider here. You have valid concerns, but I think if you try to do an honest and unbiased assessment of the tradeoffs, you’ll have to agree that a little more complexity to the ballot is a small price to pay if you really want to neutralize the scourge of Gerrymandering.
I don’t understand the criticism. There may or may not be a good reason to adopt or reject ranked voting, but it is hard for me to see why having two different systems in the same year is an objection or how ranked voting would produce more corruption. First, we already have two systems of voting in the same year, namely in every presidential year. In most states we have a winner-take-all vote for Presidential electors, who then vote in the Electoral College, and majority or plurality elections to one-person offices for all other offices. Second, distributing victories among several types of groups or having some sort of proportionality among parties’ votes and seats would reduce incentives for corruption because the electoral payoff would be lowered.
If you wanted to criticize the article, which does not really cite much research, you could focus on the authors’ mixing together several types of systems without analyzing their strengths and weaknesses. For example, cumulative voting, especially with five or fewer seats will, in a two-party system, tend to protect incumbents and reinforce the two-party duopoly, effects well established and which some would consider i desirable. There are desirable effects, too, but the point is that cumulative voting is different from Instant Runoff Voting. Then there is the existence of district-drawing rules that discourage one-party domination, but that would require another page of writing.
You are definitely right that cumulative is not as proportional as other methods, as I expanded on in the link, here: https://www.sightline.org/2017/05/18/glossary-of-methods-for-electing-legislative-bodies/#cumulative-voting
I put it in the list because it is in use in many American cities and counties, so is more familiar to voters here. But you are right that it is a step down in terms of effectiveness.
First of all, I love the concept! We need to fix a very broken system. But, although I haven’t read the full 4-article series, it seems to me that you’ve over-stated the benefits a bit. I don’t believe ALL voters necessarily have a representative that truly represents them, since there’s a vote-count threshold, below which a candidate doesn’t get into the “winners circle”. For example, if, in any of your 3 multi-member districts, one person voted for the communist party candidate, there still would be no communist party representative. Just sayin’. It’s not a huge deal, but I worry that inaccurate characterization of the outcome can reduce your credibility and be used to dismiss the concept.
Hi Tom, thanks for reading! I think the sentence you are referring to is this: “And every single conservative voter and all left-leaning voters would have at least one representative who thinks as they do, no matter what part of town they live in.”
I tried to word this for accuracy, not saying everyone will get their perfect, true representative, but that both conservatives and left-leaners will have a rep who thinks along their lines. Yes, maybe some left-leaners would prefer a Bernie and end up with a Hillary, but they’ll have someone closer to their line of thinking than a Donald.
As you note, the more winners per district, the more accurate the representation. With a ten-winner district, you could get a communist rep if 10 percent of voters preferred her.
Kristin, in your article, you recommended open list PR as one of the forms of proportional representation that should be considered. I agree with this, however just to be clear, open list PR is a combination of party list PR (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Party-list_proportional_representation) and SNTV (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Single_non-transferable_vote). Because SNTV is so manipulable to strategic voting, do you think that a better solution would be the approval voting version of open list voting, where in a political primary, voters get to approve as many candidates as they want within a single political primary, and then in the general election, voters just vote for one party, and each candidates ranking in their party list is determined by how many approvals they got in the primary. This version of open list voting will still establish proportional representation without having to inherit SNTV’s strategic voting.
Would the primaries be closed–voters would be forced to choose one political party and could only approve of candidates within that party? Or would it be open, where voters could approve of all candidates they wanted, regardless of party?
If closed, couldn’t you just do that with a single election, where voters can approve as many candidates as they want within a party, the party gets seats based on number of voters who chose that party, and candidates win based on total approvals? I like the idea of giving voters the option to approve all they want, but don’t like the idea of limiting them to a single political party.
If open, could you accomplish a similar thing by using Limited Voting instead of SNTV? So, if there are 5 seats available, voters could approve of up to 3 candidates regardless of party, parties would win seats based on proportion of votes and candidates would win within a party based on total approvals? Voters would have more voice than in SNTV though more limited than in full approval voting, but it would allow you to do it all in one election. I like this idea.
There are really two interrelated issues involved is Ms. Eberhard’s argument: 1) single-member vs. multi-member districts; and 2) the method of voting used to determine the winning candidates in either.
Her previous research, plus my own experience as a former elected representative, has convinced me that multi-member districts do have real advantages over single-member districts as they are far more likely to result in a more diverse and representative result and significantly reduce anyone’s vote being “wasted” (because his/her candidate would stand no chance of prevailing in a single-member district).
However, I am uncertain as to which method of voting is superior, although I lean toward ranked voting as it does allow a further refinement in reflecting actual voter sentiment and it does not allow the same “gaming” of the system that cumulative voting does; namely, that one could use all one’s votes in support of just one candidate. Ranked voting, on the other hand, forces you to vote for more than just one candidate, but it does allow you to weigh your voting as to preference.
I also note, however, that with the self-sorting into like neighborhoods that seems to be a pattern across our badly divided country today, even multi-member districts may offer less real diversity in many areas in the near future than is possible today.
Thanks again, Kristin, for your continued fine and provocative work!
You might be interested in learning about any of these other proportional voting methods:
Proportional approval voting https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_jS7b-0PV9E
Reweighted range voting https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kaZB84uipFk&t=8s
PSI voting http://scorevoting.net/QualityMulti.html
Harmonic voting (same as PSI when approval ballots are used) http://scorevoting.net/QualityMulti.html
Monroe’s system http://scorevoting.net/MonroeMW.html
Schulze STV https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schulze_STV
Meek STV http://blog.opavote.com/2017/04/meek-stv-explained.html
Elbert’s system http://scorevoting.net/PRintLinprog.html
You may enjoy some of these innovative proportional voting proposals.
Kudos to Ms. Eberhard’s extensive thought on these very important matters. The question isn’t whether a suggested voting system has downsides; the question is how it compares to what we currently have now. Resistance to something different is often our default mode (and sometimes justified) but with regard to voting systems we can and should be doing better. Ms. Eberhard’s work gives much to think about.
Nice gerrymandering summary article Kristen.
Overlapping first-past-the-post (FPTP) single-member districts do a better job than single transferable vote (STV, also referred to as ranked choice voting) multiple-member districts at slaying the gerrymander.
Consider the following. On Election Day:
1. Each FPTP voter puts a mark beside just one candidate in three separate overlapping single-member districts on the ballot. This three overlapping single-member districts FPTP proportional representation (PR) electoral system gives about 88% or more of the voters the voting power to elect preferred candidates.
2. Each FPTP voter puts a mark beside just one candidate in four separate overlapping single-member districts on the ballot. This four overlapping single-member districts FPTP PR electoral system ensures about 94% or more voters elect preferred candidates.
Now, compare the above single-member district election results to the following multiple-member district election results. On Election Day:
1. Each STV voter ranks candidates on a three-member district ballot in order of preference. This three-member districts STV electoral system enables about 75% or more of the votes to elect preferred candidates.
2. Each STV voter ranks candidates on a five-member district ballot. This five-member districts electoral system ensures about 83% or more of the votes elect preferred candidates.
Election result comparisons show overlapping single-member districts ensure larger proportions of voters elect preferred representatives and that fewer votes are wasted. This means overlapping single-member districts produce better PR and do a better job at slaying the gerrymander than multiple-member districts. Besides this, the FPTP election method is the simplest of all election methods on record and the STV election method is amongst the most complex.
Furthermore, overlapping STV multiple-member districts do a better job than STV multiple-member districts at slaying the gerrymander. For example, compare the above multiple-member district election results to the following overlapping multiple-member district election results. On Election Day:
1. Each STV voter ranks candidates in two separate overlapping two-member districts on the ballot. This two overlapping two-member districts STV electoral system enables about 89% or more of the votes to elect preferred candidates.
2. Each STV voter ranks candidates in two separate overlapping three-member districts on the ballot. This two overlapping three-member districts STV electoral system enables about 94% or more of the votes to elect preferred candidates.
Election result comparisons show overlapping multiple-member districts ensure larger proportions of the votes elect preferred representatives and that fewer votes are wasted. This also means overlapping multiple-member districts produce better PR and do a better job at slaying the gerrymander/Tullymander than multiple-member districts.
In summary, overlapping single-member and multiple-member districts do a better job at slaying the gerrymander than single-member and multiple-member districts. They make more votes matter and they make democracy more representative of the people by giving voters the power to directly elect preferred representatives, regardless of where the voters live within their overlapping districts.
Additional information on the FPTP PR electoral system is available at Election Districts Voting. The website covers new FPTP PR, alternative vote (AV, also known as instant-runoff voting) PR and STV PR electoral systems. These systems strengthen voting power, create a strong connection between voters and representatives, provide more diverse representation and improve the quality of representative government.
Ever state should be divide in Equal district , none longer in length than wide in width. Using this method of divide a state district, there would be a mixture of ,Dem ,Rep and any other parties. Even when making districts equal with the same amount of people ,THIS WORKS TO BE THE FAIREST WAY TO ELECTED OUR MEMBERS OF CONGRESS !!!!