Congress is broken, and everyone knows it. Its approval ratings hover around 10 percent, and a recent poll from Public Policy Polling found that Congress is currently less popular than cockroaches, lice and traffic jams. It has difficulty getting any sort of business done, let alone address our nation’s major challenges, like climate change, immigration, poverty and fiscal policy. But amidst the partisan fingerpointing and bickering, one core aspect of the way our government works gets a free pass. We hear a lot about campaign finance and gerrymandering, but single-member district elections – that is, having each House member represent one congressional district – are without doubt the single greatest cause of what is broken about Congress. They are the key reason why Republicans easily kept control of the House despite losing the popular vote to Democrats, and why the political center has lost out to partisans on both sides of the aisle. They turn four out of five voters effectively into spectators who have absolutely no chance of affecting their representation in Congress. They help keep women’s representation in the House stalled at less than 18 percent, and grossly distort fair representation by party and race.
We want to make four arguments. First, House elections today have a fundamental partisan skew against both Democratic and moderate candidates. Second, that partisan skew creates perverse incentives for how Republicans approach policymaking and helps explain the Republican Party’s poor performance in the presidential elections since the 1980s. Third, while partisan gerrymandering is abhorrent, the real problem is one of districting, not redistricting. Establishing independent redistricting commissions is not enough. Fourth, it’s easier to fix these problems than much of what ails our politics, as voting alternatives to winner-take-all elections offer a straightforward statutory approach grounded in our own electoral traditions.
Times change, and with those changes should come willingness to ask whether the fundamentals of our democracy still work. Our nation’s history has been one of regular evolution of our democratic practices, but our minds have become increasingly closed to change.
It’s time for a new way of looking at U.S. House elections.