Post-Partisan: Fixing our ideological divide

October 28, 2013

As Americans examine the astounding dysfunction of their government, gerrymandering is usually cited as the prime culprit. This narrative offers a compelling villain: venal politicians who draw district boundaries for partisan advantage or to protect their own incumbency.

On the surface, it makes sense that manipulating district lines could be responsible for the increase in non-competitive, non-diverse congressional seats and the rise of ideologues who take radical positions without fear of voter retribution. But this ignores evidence that gerrymandering is only partly responsible for the current partisanship — and that eliminating it will not address the calamity we are witnessing.

No one disputes that congressional districts have become less competitive. During the last government shutdown in 1995, 79 of the 236 House Republicans represented districts that supported President Bill Clinton in his 1992 election. Today, only 17 of the 232 House Republicans represent districts that backed President Barack Obama — demonstrating more partisan consistency at the district level.

Cook’s Political Report, a leading congressional handicapper, makes the point more directly. There were 164 competitive districts in 1998, according to Cook’s Partisan Voter Index, but only 99 after 2012.

While this could be due to gerrymandering, a deeper look at the data reveals a different reality. County lines do not change every decade the way congressional districts do. In 1992, Clinton won 1,519 counties while in 2012 Obama won only 693 — less than one-third of all counties. His support was far more geographically concentrated than Clinton’s.

This fact, more than gerrymandering, explains how Democratic congressional candidates could have over one million more votes in total than Republicans in 2012, but still could not win control of the House of Representatives. During the same period we have seen a decrease in the number of states considered competitive in presidential elections and fewer states sending split delegations to the Senate, even though state boundaries cannot be gerrymandered. Cook’s data also shows that the number of competitive districts declined steadily during the last decade — not just after redistricting years.

Americans are more and more geographically segregated along ideological lines. When that segregation is refracted through the lens of party primaries and winner-take-all elections, the result is a Congress that is bitterly divided. Gerrymandering may work to make that division worse, but it is not the root cause.

Though public policy cannot easily address ideological segregation, all is not lost. Restoring the ideological middle ground to Congress is possible if we rethink how we organize our elections.

California and Washington State are now experimenting with “top two” primaries — where the top two finishers proceed to the general election. In theory, even when two candidates from the same party are selected in a heavily partisan district, the more moderate will attract voters from the other party and be elected.

The New York Times recently credited this reform for the relatively high functioning of the current California legislature. Unfortunately, empirical studies do not yet support this. Whatever effect “top two” is having comes at the cost of excluding political parties from the process of selecting candidates. In California, partisan affiliation is solely at the discretion of the candidate — relegating parties to the role of checkbook and a collection of personal endorsements.

At the same time, the system punishes multiple candidates with similar positioning, who run the risk of splitting the same vote and missing the cut for the general election. That’s exactly the sorting problem that party primaries solve. A more promising alternative now used in several municipalities is ranked-choice voting (RCV). Under this system, voters rank multiple candidates for office. As the votes are counted, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and his or her votes reassigned to the supporters’ next highest choice. This process is repeated until a candidate has majority support among the remaining candidates.

At a minimum, RCV allows additional candidates to compete in the general election and have their arguments heard without the risk of being a “spoiler,” giving voters the most choice at the election they are most likely to attend.  At its best, it sends to office the candidate with the most support among all voters — not just the fraction that controls the party primaries.

The principal objection to RCV is the practical fear of voter confusion: 35 candidates filed for next month’s Minneapolis mayoral race, where RCV will be used.

There is no such thing as a perfect voting system. What is clear, however, is that we have become locked in to a way of thinking about elections that no longer meets the best interests of our complex and divided country. It is possible, with ideas like these, to improve outcomes with simple changes in state law.

Gerrymandering is surely offensive to democratic ideals and should be eliminated. But if our goal is to restore competition to our elections and sanity to our politics, we need to think outside the lines.


ILLUSTRATION (Top): Matt Mahurin

PHOTO (Insert 1): Supporters of Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) applaud as they welcome him home at the King Street Patriots headquarters in Houston, October 21, 2013. REUTERS/Donna Carson

PHOTO (Insert 2): Surfer Mike Wegart, 30, votes during the presidential election at Venice Beach lifeguard station in Los Angeles, California, November 6, 2012. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson




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What is the definition of “moderate”?
What is the evidence that “more moderate” legislative bodies make better public policy than “less moderate” legislative bodies?
What is the evidence that “more moderate” candidates gain more votes than “less moderate” candidates?

Posted by Tamalpais | Report as abusive

Soros too easily dismisses the affect of gerrymandering Congressional districts. Even though according to the US Constitution that the US House of Representatives is proportional to population (unlike the rich man’s Senate), Democrats represent 1.4 million more voters (much smaller than the actual population of their districts) than the Republicans represent in the House. That’s why the US no longer has a democracy.

Look at the Congressional district maps in GA, NC, MISS, PA, etc. and you’d think it was a drunk’s new jigsaw puzzle. Back in the 1950s the Warren Court ruled one man one vote against the South’s county unit system which changed the South dramatically for about 20 years. Then Republicans took over and democracy took a nose-dive.

Soros ignores the fact that Mississippi has 25% illiteracy, 35 % poverty, nearly 40% minorities yet Republicans control everything from Governor, State House, US Senate, etc. No logical explanation how that can be and still be a democracy.

There is no great ideological divide in the US. The vast majority of AMericans want to tax the rich, make corporations pay their taxes, have national healthcare overage, preserve Social Security, and support our public education. It’s only Mr. Soros’ billionaire class that keeps rolling out PR from the conservative think tanks that say otherwise.

What is surely undemocratic is that you and I are most likely paying a higher tax rate on our income(include sales, real estate, local, state, federal income, excuse and social security – all taxes) than Jonathan Soros pays on his dividends and hedge fund income.

Posted by Acetracy | Report as abusive

A far more representative group of legislators would be selected by making all seats at large, to allow those widely dispersed interest groups an opportunity for representation.

I used to live in Pete Olson’s congressional district. Looking forward to voting against him again, I was dismayed to find, that without moving, I had been transferred to Al Green’s district. I suspect that was because of the dark blue demographics in my neighborhood.

Posted by tralfamadoran | Report as abusive

That’s wrong about RCV having a connection to Minneapolis having 35 mayoral candidates. We have a $20 filing fee with no petition requirement. We had frivolous candidates before we had RCV. Blaming RCV for this is like blaming RCV because campaign season was rainy.

Posted by ericf | Report as abusive

Section 1: ARTICLE II, Section 1, Paragraphs 2 and 3 to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed and superseded by this amendment. Henceforth, the President and the Vice President shall be elected directly by a popular vote of all citizens 18 or over on Election Day, as determined by the Congress and approved by the President in accordance with the Constitution.
Section 2: Amendment XII and Amendment XXIII shall be superseded by this Amendment except for the following sentences of Amendment XII:
The person having the greatest number of votes for President shall be President
The person having the greatest number of votes for Vice President shall be Vice President
No person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice President of the United States.
The President and Vice President shall not be an inhabitant of the same state.
Section 3: Each member of the House of Representatives shall represent no more then 250,000 +/- 12,500 citizens. As the nation’s population increases or decreases the number of House member will increase or decrease to accommodate this requirement. Congressional Districts shall be compact and drawn along state, country, city, town and village lines wherever possible to accommodate equal representation. In some instances, election district boundaries may have to be used but in no case can election districts be divided except in accordance with state, county and local laws. In cities with a population greater than one million (1,000,000) Congressional Districts need not be compact but drawn in such a manner so as to reflect the various ethnic, cultural and neighborhood interests, differences and diversities residing within our country.
Section 4: Any state with a population of five million (5,000,000) shall be able to elect another Senator and receive an additional Senator for each additional increase in five million citizens. All Senators shall be elected at large and represent the entire state in Congress.
Section 5: The Congress shall have the power to establish by law all procedures pertaining to the election of President and Vice President including: the certification and transmission of election results, a sorting and winnowing process of potential candidates, voter identification, guaranteeing each citizen the right to vote in secret and ensuring each vote is counted.
Section 6: Federal judges shall have the power to review and adjust Congressional District boundaries to better reflect Section 3, but the compliant must come from within the Congressional District(s) with an accompanying petition signed by ten per cent (10%) of those residing within the district(s).
Section 7: a. Any state having fewer than 250,000 citizens shall be guaranteed one representative and two Senators.
b. The District of Columbia may elect representatives in accordance with its population and Section 3.
c. The District of Columbia being once a part of Maryland may take part in electing Senators from Maryland.
Section 8: The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Posted by iyouwemwus | Report as abusive