Sunday, February 22, 2015

Instead of Breaking Maps, Let's Go By Proportions

My rants against the gerrymander are often enough that it's one of my key reform arguments since the old days when this was a different blog.

So whenever I see someone else out there offering a suggestion on how to kill the gerrymander, I pay attention.  This time it's Noah Gordon over at The Atlantic suggesting that we can use Proportional Seating - a parliamentary system used by a lot of European democracies - as a way to end the evils of the gerrymander:

What is proportional representation, or PR? It’s a system that aims to gives parties the same percentage of seats as the percentage of votes they receive—and it might be able to end our gerrymandering wars.
Every ten years, state officials are charged with redrawing district maps to account for population shifts in the Census. In practice, incumbent lawmakers often turn into cartographers with the power to change maps to suit their needs. The problem is epigrammatic: Rather than voters choosing their legislators, legislators are choosing their voters...
...Even with good, non-partisan intentions, it’s getting harder to draw single-member districts that get a party’s seat share to approximate its statewide vote share...
In the United States, those geographical areas could be the states. Imagine Oregon sent five members of the House. Under PR, if Democrats got 60 percent of the statewide vote and Republicans got 40 percent, three Democrats and two Republicans would be elected to the House. Or if the two big parties got 40 percent each, and the Green Party won 20 percent of the vote, the Greens would send a representative to Congress. The largest states could use several smaller electoral districts, so that, for example, someone from San Diego isn’t represented only by northern Californians.
There are different ways of determining which candidates from the parties make it in. Most European democracies use what's called an open-list PR system, where each party nominates (at most) as many candidates as that district sends to its legislature. Voters get a single vote for a candidate that also counts for that candidate’s party.
Think again of five-member Oregon. One popular local Republican wins 40 percent of the vote, and two other Republicans win 10 percent each. All three go to Congress because the party won three-fifths of the state’s votes. The top Libertarian candidate receives 20 percent. He or she, too, goes to Congress. No Democratic candidate gets more than 8 percent of the vote, but because the total number of votes cast for Democrats adds up to 20 percent, the last congressional seat goes to the first-place winner among them...

Proportional voting won't affect the Senate: each state still gets two (although this disproportionately favors the smaller states nowadays).  Proportional will affect the Presidency in terms of the Electoral College, with regards to the numbers that the Congressional seats can add to the table.  Especially if we follow through with my idea that we currently have too few Congresscritters for the larger populated states (we haven't increased the representation since the 1920s, during which our population's tripled).

As Gordon notes in his essay, Proportional voting has its drawbacks: it's more complex than the current Winner-Take-All district voting we currently use, and that geographically large states - California and Texas, obviously - will need to make extra effort to ensure all their representatives don't come from one corner of their state (you don't want all of your officials coming from Los Angeles).

But the benefits of Proportional are great: above all, every vote really does matter.  Gordon notes "Under the current system, a candidate who receives 49 percent of the vote and a candidate who receives 5 percent of it in a two-way House election receive the same reward: none. This provides little incentive for Democrats in rural Georgia to vote in House elections at all, for example."  Under Proportional, the odds improve that your Party/field of candidates can win enough seats to matter to where you NEED to get out your vote (as well as your like-minded neighbors).

Proportional does something else: it breaks the logjam of having two dominant national parties - Republican and Democratic - that are polarizing the entire political spectrum.  With a Proportional system, the lesser parties - Libertarian, Green, or any Moderate/Centrist party that can rise up - now have improved odds to getting at least one seat per mid-sized/large state where the percentages favor those getting 10-15 percent of a vote.  They won't overtake the established machines - the Senate and Presidency still favor a two-party, Winner-Take-All electoral system - but the so-called Third Parties can break the frozen static noise of the national political landscape by forcing a fractured House into forming coalitions like they do in the European democracies.

Picture a U.S. House with 435 seats to share, meaning you need 218 seats to hold a majority.  Now, say the Republicans hold only 207 seats to the Democrats 205.  There's 23 seats belonging to various Third Party Congresscritters, say 8 seats are Libertarian, 6 seats are Green, 1 is a radical Right Wing faction, and the remaining 8 are independent non-party rabblerousers.  The Republicans could form a coalition with the Libertarians, some of the independents, and that one Radical and retain control, but the Libertarians will insist on major trade-offs that would otherwise be poison to the GOP (including giving their members key committee chairs, and pushing a more Libertarian agenda that could rile the nation against the Republicans who will shoulder the blame...).  If the Republicans can't get enough of the factions to join in a coalition, the Democrats could team up with the Greens and enough of the non-party members to reach that 218.

An off-shoot of this will be the interchanging of party members: it will become easier for disgruntled elected officials to switch parties with similar bent without losing their support back home.  This gives other parties the chance to gain effective, organized leaders who know how to campaign and govern.  As the Third Parties gain in stature, the probabilities of needing to form coalitions - which can de-radicalize the partisan nature of politics as more moderate factions gain value - will increase.

The greatest argument against Proportional will be the confusing nature of it at the national level.  It will also require an increase in the number of elected seats in order to ensure every state, including the smallest ones, to have enough seats to share.

But this shouldn't be a problem: as I've noted earlier, we haven't increased our number of Congressional seats since the 1920s.  We're now under-represented at triple the current population and with a greater disconnect between the voters and the Congress.  The real trick, in my estimate, is accurately gauging how many seats we should really have.

We've got a lot of small, mid-sized populated states.  There's 8 states with just one Representative, 5 states with two, 3 states with three, 6 states with four.  Double-digit representation doesn't kick in until you're two-thirds of the way through the state count.  By comparison, there's only 2 states with 18 seats, 2 states with 27 seats, then Texas at 36 and topped by California with 53 seats.  California has roughly one-sixth of the entire nation's population, and you'd like to think they should get enough proportional seating compared to all the smaller populated states that can barely total the same number.

Bumping every state up to have two House seats no matter what helps with the smaller states, but then it's a question of how to increase from there.  A simple, barely thought-out idea would be to break it down by sections: bottom five states have two seats, next bottom five states get three, next five states get five (going by prime number), next five get seven, next five get eleven, so on.  But that doesn't reflect the disparity of populations when we get into the top ten/fifteen states, where one state can be double the number of the next-sized state (California almost doubling that of Texas) and thus deserves a specifically-tailored seating count.

The only other problem would be genuine representation.  Proportional seating will be an advantage to the candidates but what happens if the results have every candidate from one city or one region of a large, diverse state?  As Gordon noted, it'll be up to the states - or federal rules, especially if we use an amendment to make this work - to designate special districts (most likely cities) to ensure at least one representative from each district gets elected.  It will favor the urban over the rural, but that's what representation is supposed to do: favor the people who actually live there.

The other thing about representation will be the gender and ethnic, which is an existing problem already (especially the under-representation of women in Congress).  It will be up to the parties to ensure they get representatives that reflect the population's diversity (it ought to be like that already, although such "outreach" efforts by the Republicans towards women, Blacks, Hispanics, and minorities in general have been painful at best).  Without exact district maps to create minority-majority districts, we run the risk of losing Black and/or Hispanic representation.  Proportional may fix that by encouraging voter turnout anyway, and having enough voters back minority candidates at a state level to ensure healthy representation (it would beg the question if moderate or independent voters will vote with such diversity in mind).

As far as breaking the gerrymanders, Proportional is the simplest method of doing that without getting into the partisan divides struggling over "fair" districting (which still gets violated/ignored) or "impartial" committees (which can still get gamed).  Getting Proportional to work, however...

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