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Multi-seat districts and ranked-choice voting would repair a broken Congress [Commentary]

We are a year away from the 2014 elections, but the early returns are already in: FairVote's "Monopoly Politics 2014" projects winners and their victory margins in 373 of 435 congressional districts. That means more than 85 percent of "races" are so safe for incumbents that nothing in the upcoming year of governing and campaigning will change the outcome.

For Maryland, it's even more of a blowout: Seven Democrats and one Republican are all secure in their districts in 2014. Last year, every race was won by a landslide margin of at least 20 percent.

Using the same methodology last year, FairVote was correct in all 333 of our projections. There was more turnover due to redistricting, but now most incumbents are even more entrenched in districts that are safe for their party.

Our report reveals an even more startling finding: Due to a combination of partisan gerrymandering, incumbency advantages, declines in ticket-splitting, and the concentration of Democratic voters in urban areas, House Republicans would likely keep their majority with as little as 45 percent of the national vote in 2014. Such an outcome would make a mockery of representative democracy.

This bias creates an obvious disadvantage for Democrats, but it hurts Republicans too. Because almost all House incumbents only fear primary challenges, they move further from the center. Republicans' entrenched majority means they can ignore changes in the electorate, making it harder to win the White House and Senate.

Most importantly, the partisan bias and ultra-safe seats in House elections hurt the nation. Unaccountable congressional leadership means gridlock and dysfunctional government.

The good news is that we can reform Congress with ranked-choice voting. Used in many nations and American cities, such as San Francisco, St. Paul, Minn., and Portland, Me., ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference — first, second, third and so on — rather than selecting just one. If no one wins a clear majority of first-place votes, the last place candidate is eliminated and his or her votes are redistributed to the second place candidate on those ballots. This process continues until a majority winner appears.

When used to elect several candidates, ranked-choice voting guarantees more diverse representation than our winner-take-all elections in which a handful of primary voters decide everyone's representation. With a move toward multi-seat districts for the election of the House, the process would become even fairer.

As shown in our 50-state plan at FairVoting.us the House would be the same size, but it would be elected from a smaller number of multi-seat districts. Each voter would have one potent vote in elections for between three and five representatives, according to the district's population. Like-minded voters could elect one candidate with about a quarter of the vote in both the primary and general election.

Our plan for Maryland's congressional elections creates two "super districts," one made up of five seats and one electing three. Democrats would be projected to win five seats and Republicans three — a much fairer reflection of Maryland's voters. Voters would always have the chance to cast a meaningful vote for change, both within and outside of the major parties. Far more voters, including racial minorities and women, would be able to earn fair representation.

Most states have already used multi-seat districts to elect members of Congress or state legislators, but in 1967 Congress mandated single-seat House districts. Before the next round of redistricting in 2021, Congress should pass a law requiring all states to use ranked-choice voting in multi-seat districts drawn by independent commissions. Maryland can adopt ranked-choice voting for its legislative elections right now.

All voters should be in charge of their representation in every election — not partisan mapmakers once a decade. With ranked-choice voting, we can restore the Founders' vision of a truly representative and accountable People's House.

Rob Richie is executive director and Devin McCarthy is a policy analyst at FairVote, a nonpartisan organization based in Takoma Park. They can be reached at info@fairvote.org.


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