Partisans and political observers are paying close attention to Tuesday's House special election in Pennsylvania's 18th District, following last year's resignation of disgraced Republican Congressman Tim Murphy . But despite the national implications of this race, both sides would be better served by thinking about how to avoid wasting millions on special elections, and to put a better framework in place for all House contests.
Democrats are hoping for a shock victory for their candidate, Conor Lamb, in a district President Trump won by almost 20 points, which would be another sign of an inbound blue tsunami tall enough to wipe away GOP majorities in both the House and the Senate. Republicans are hoping that a substantial victory for Rick Saccone might mean the party can hold onto the House of Representatives this November despite widespread public dissatisfaction with the president and his party.
But a focus on the race as an electoral bellwether leads us away from more important questions about how we fill vacant seats and also how we elect members of the House more broadly.
First, what purpose does it serve to hold a multimillion-dollar election for a seat that will be held for a mere eight months before it is put up for grabs again in the November midterm elections? Members of the House are already elected to the shortest terms for any national legislature in the world, and must begin raising money for their next campaign the minute the champagne gets sticky on the floor of campaign headquarters.
That reality means that this race is almost exclusively a way for each party to jockey for advantage in the court of public opinion and expectations. But wasting cash on an unnecessary election isn't the only problem here. Whoever wins Tuesday's tilt, this district is unlikely to look the same for the general election as it does today, meaning the winner of this absurd contest will have to then win a primary in May and possibly face a substantially different set of voters in November.
That's because last month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the House map that had been rigged for the GOP after the 2010 reapportionment, a gerrymandering abomination that left an evenly divided state with 13 Republicans and five Democrats in its delegation. When the Republican-controlled Legislature failed to produce a fairer map that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf could sign, the court imposed a new, much more balanced set of districts for both the May primaries and November's general elections, sending everyone in both parties scrambling to make sense of the new arrangements. Republicans are taking their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, and it remains to be seen whether the state court's map will be upheld.
While the court's map is a vast improvement over the brazenly rigged districts that Pennsylvanians have had access to since 2012, having state courts draw districts in overheated partisan environments is hardly a long-term answer to America's gerrymandering problems. As Meghan Leonard has argued, Republican state legislatures are increasingly trying to strip courts of their powers when rulings go against them. Kicking America's districting wars to the courts is likely, in the long run, to exacerbate destructive partisan warfare over the courts themselves, and to delegitimize one of the few remaining institutions that enjoys even marginal public trust.
Rather than finding ways to create genuinely fair maps under our existing system — nearly impossible in a country where Democrats and Republicans increasingly live apart — progressive reformers should look to the Fair Representation Act, introduced last year in the U.S. House, which would completely transform how we elect our representatives, eliminating destructive gerrymandering battles, bringing more moderate politicians into the chamber, and offering new ways to avoid expensive special elections that ask more of American voters than is reasonable by any small-d democratic standard.
First, a simple fix: There should be no more special elections for the House less than a year from a general election. When such vacancies occur, governors should be empowered to fill those seats until the next time all voters are called to the polls, something that most states do for vacancies in the Senate. While the Constitution requires governors to "issue writs of election," for House vacancies, the language is sufficiently vague to allow for a variety of maneuvers. To avoid the sordid game where presidential administrations are staffed with members of Congress from safe seats, a law could be passed requiring the appointee to be from the same party that voters chose in the last election.
But to fix our elections for the House more permanently, and to avoid the ugly spectacle unfolding between the Pennsylvania GOP and the state Supreme Court, lawmakers should contemplate a radical overhaul of the whole system. The Fair Representation Act would create larger, multimember districts elected by something called ranked choice voting. Such a larger district might elect three or even five representatives. Voters would rank-order their choices, vote their hearts with their first picks, and then have their ballots redistributed to their second, third or even fourth choices if their preferred candidates don't make the cut.
This system, which is how the Irish elect their parliament, would work a series of instantaneous miracles. It would make it nearly impossible to gerrymander districts, giving Republicans in Massachusetts and Democrats in Alabama a chance to have at least one or two representatives in the House. It would also incentivize more cooperative behavior between parties and less extreme candidates, since parties would benefit from appealing to a broader subset of voters in significantly enlarged districts. Finally, the Fair Representation Act would give real opportunities to America's third parties and to the majority of voters who say they want choices beyond Democrats and Republicans.
That would be a bigger victory for both parties, and for our politics, than any short-term gain to be had on tonight.
David Faris is an associate professor of political science at Roosevelt University, Chicago, and a contributing writer at The Week. He is the author of "It's Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics," out next month from Melville House Publishing.