Most Americans have been suffering under our antiquated 18th century democratic methods for so long that we don’t realize there are alternatives. There’s an old riddle, “We don’t know who discovered water, but we can be certain it wasn’t a fish.” That is to say, we naturally take for granted the nature of the sea in which we swim.
Consider the situation in the South, where 58.7 percent of all African-Americans live today. States like Mississippi (37% Black) and Louisiana (32% Black) lead the way in the evolution of multi-racial societies, with Alabama, Georgia and North and South Carolina not far behind. The “Solid South” used to be a Democratic Party stronghold, going back to Reconstruction and Jim Crow segregation in the late 19th century; now, it’s solid, rock-ribbed Republican country.
Tragically, because we elect our legislatures using single-seat districts, partisanship in the South has become racialized in a dangerous way. Following the 2020 elections, the 38 US House seats from the five states of the Deep South (Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia and South Carolina) were held by 28 conservative white Republicans (25 of them men), nine liberal African American Democrats and only one white Democrat. There are no elected Black Republicans, and moderate representatives, which often act as the bridgebuilders in a legislature, have virtually disappeared from the South. FairVote’s “Dubious Democracy” report shows how only a handful of these elections have been remotely competitive in recent years, as voters have bunkered down in solidly red and blue winner-take-all districts, exacerbating the partisan and racial divide.
Not only is partisanship racialized, but the handful of Black Democrats represent urban-based seats, while Republicans dominate the rest, adding a sharp geographic schism to this polarization. That also has contributed to the extinction of elected white moderates. This mix of race, partisanship and geography constitutes an extremely toxic brew; it usually has been explosive whenever it has appeared in US history.
The promise of multi-seat districts in the South
But instead of using single-seat districts, even so modest a change as combining three adjoining districts into one three-seat district elected by proportional ranked choice voting would advance fair and less racialized and polarized representation to an encouraging degree. Indeed FairVote has modeled how a P-RCV system would perform in all 50 states. Let’s look at its proposed plan for some of these southern states, starting with Louisiana.
Currently Louisiana’s Black population, which comprises nearly a third of the state, elects only one Black Democrat and five white Republicans to its six single-district seats. That under-representation led to a voting rights lawsuit, Ardoin v. Robinson, in which a federal district court ordered that the Louisiana legislature must draw a new congressional map to include a second majority-Black district. But on June 28, the Supreme Court overturned that lower court order in an unsigned, unexplained decision.
Last February, the heavily Republican Supreme Court did the same in Alabama, overturning a lower federal court’s ruling that Alabama’s congressional map was illegally diluting the power of Black voters by drawing only a single majority-Black district instead of two of Alabama’s seven seats. Here too, the unelected Justices issued a brief, unsigned order that lacked any legal rationale.
But what if, instead of using six single-seat districts in Louisiana, which are so vulnerable to manipulation by both partisan judges and legislatures, we used two multi-seat districts of three seats each, elected by proportional voting? Here’s how that could look:
In this Fair Representation Plan (purple map), districts A and B would both have three seats, and would each contain half of the state’s population. Using ranked choice voting, any candidate that receives 25% of the vote in one of those three-seat districts will win a seat. Candidates could run district-wide, or more likely would try to win their votes in the region(s) of the district where she or he is popular. So this configuration would create some geographic-based representation combined with regional and city representation. Democrats and Republican voters throughout the state would be able to elect winners in proportion to their share of the popular vote.
Based on FairVote’s proposed plan, grounded in a preliminary analysis of the latest demographic data, in all likelihood Republicans would elect four of these six seats (instead of the current five); and Democrats would elect two seats, both of them likely Black Democrats. African American voters in Louisiana would have the power to elect one of their preferred candidates in each district, even assuming extreme racially polarized voting, because they are over 25% of each district’s voting population.
Moreover, instead of the current Supreme Court-dictated plan (turquoise map), in which only those small number of Black voters that live in the heavily Democratic and Black district 2 around New Orleans are able to elect a representative, with the Fair Representation Plan fully 100% of African-Americans would live in a district that would elect a Black representative. Currently “orphaned” Black voters, whose votes don’t help elect anyone, would have an electoral home.
That in turn means that candidates would be visiting these voters’ townships and communities, making campaign promises and asking for their votes. Entire regions of the state that currently have no electoral hope whatsoever suddenly would be valued and empowered.
Let’s look at FairVote’s proposed plan for Alabama, another state being crushed under the Supreme Court’s boot heel. Alabama’s seven single-seat House members would be elected from one three-seat district (25% victory threshold) and one four-seat district (20% victory threshold, see chart below for how the victory threshold is determined). This would result in four Republican seats (instead of the current six), two Democratic seats (instead of currently one), and one swing seat that either party could win. Blacks would elect the two Democratic seats.
But proportional ranked choice voting does not favor any one political party, it is designed to ensure that all parties win their fair share of representation. In Virginia, Democrats currently win seven seats, two of them Black, while the GOP wins four seats, all of them white men. Under a FairVote plan, using two three-seat districts (25% threshold) and one five-seat district (16%), Democrats would elect 6 seats, Republicans 5 seats, with Blacks and other people of color likely electing three of those seats. Perhaps even a Black Republican would win a seat.
Currently these five Deep South states with large Black populations elect only nine Black House members. But such “full representation” plans would likely result in12 to 14 seats for Black congressmembers. And formerly orphaned Black voters would have an effective vote that actually counts towards electing their preferred representative. Indeed, the number of African Americans living in a district with high enough population numbers to reach the victory threshold would more than double, going from currently 40% to 98% of Black voters. In FairVote’s plan for North Carolina, the percentage of Black voters with an effective vote would increase from 19% to 100%. Latino voters also would be closer to the victory threshold in many states; and more white moderates and women would certainly get elected to Congress.
Using Fair Representation Plans based on multi-seat districts and ranked choice voting, broad representation would be accomplished in competitive elections without gerrymandering a single district, or worrying about partisan courts sabotaging it all. House elections would result in elected representatives that more accurately reflect the actual demographics of the South today. And different communities of interest, even if they are polarized, would no longer be fighting over a limited commodity – political representation in “winner take all” districts. Each side would be able to win its fair share of representation, drawing from its base of supporters but also using the ranked ballots to build broader coalitions to attract more votes. That in turn would help lessen the degree of division.
Bi-partisan potential in the West and Northeast
If the racially-divided South can implement an electoral system that provides diverse and less polarizing representation, then anywhere can. Using multi-seat districts with RCV in other regions of the country would yield similar results. In New England, moderate Rockefeller Republicans, once a granitic mainstay of Yankee politics that have also become an extinct species, would be electorally viable again. In the Mountain and Prairie states—which in recent years have experienced a virtual avalanche of extreme polarization amidst right-wing gains that threaten post-democratic breakdown – it would be possible to once again elect moderate Republicans like former Montana governor Marc Racicot and the Solutions Caucus, and moderate Democrats like Rep. Pat Williams. In the 2018 midterm elections, congressional Republicans’ biggest losses came among their most moderate members, further widening the partisan divide. Mavericks like Republican Congressmen Adam Kinzinger and John Katko, and Democrat Stephanie Murphy, who have recently declined to run for reelection because of pressure from extremists within their parties, would be able to cultivate support from both Republican and Democratic moderates in their multi-seat districts.
With more moderates getting elected, the resulting cross-fertilization in Republican and Democratic party caucuses would lessen some of the polarization and harsh rancor that now infects the United States Congress. In the upcoming November elections, fewer than 40 US House seats out of 435 are considered “competitive” for either major party to win, because the districts have become such lopsided one-party fiefdoms. Multi-seat districts elected through P-RCV would stir up this racket of incumbent protection and lack of competition, and would give moderate candidates a vehicle through which to mobilize a more centrist voter base that could compete with the other factions of the major parties.
FairVote has turned its 50-state plan into legislation introduced into the US House of Representatives, called the Fair Representation Act. There is much to gain from the use of full representation electoral systems in the South, the West, the Northeast and elsewhere -- from diverse representation and more minority voters actually helping to elect their favorite candidates without gerrymandered districts, to moderate voters having a chance to elect moderate representatives, to a reduction in geographic-based polarization, to independent voters and candidates having a chance to win a seat by reaching the lower (25%) victory threshold, to orphaned voters everywhere having an opportunity to cast a vote that helps elect their preferred representatives.
Any of the 50 state legislatures could adopt multi-seat districts right now, and elect those seats using proportional voting. And if Congress changed one federal law that mandates single-seat districts to simply allow an option of using multi-seat districts, then various states could try using proportional voting to elect their US House delegations. No changes to the US Constitution are necessary.
Americans just need to get outside the rusty iron box that we have entombed ourselves in, and try these proportional voting methods that already are being used by most of the world’s established democracies.
Oh, the answer to the riddle… of who discovered water? It was a flying fish.