Multi-Seat Districts

The first part of my proposed plan involves allowing states to once again elect Representatives from multi-seat districts.

Multi-seat districts might sound odd or unique, but they are actually older than the nation. Each state in the Confederation, which governed the Country from Independence to the ratification of the Constitution, elected a group of “at large” candidates to serve in Congress. A state might have, for example, four delegates, who were the four men to get the most votes in an election from a list of ten or more candidates. In the First U.S. Congress roughly half the states elected candidates from multi-seat districts, and a few elected Representatives “at large.”

A multi-seat district would send two or three Representatives to Congress rather than one. This meant that a candidate with less than 50% support could win a seat in Congress. In a two seat district the candidate with the most votes might get 50%, but the second might only get 40% of the vote. In a three seat district a third candidate might get elected with as little as 10% of the vote.

There are a number of benefits to this system. First, it is more democratic than the current system. Currently a candidate can get 50.1% of the vote and win. This leaves 49.9% of the voters feeling unrepresented, and that that their values and interests are not being protected in Congress. In a multi-seat district a higher percentage of people will have voted for a sitting Representative, and so feel that they are represented. For example in a two seat district the first-place candidate might get 55% of the vote and the second place candidate 30% of the vote. Both would go to Congress, and 85% of the people would have elected a Representative.

Multi-seat elections would also fundamentally change the dynamic of our elections. A candidate could no longer win by demeaning an opponent to sway votes or decrease turn-out. There still may be some value in tarnishing an opponent but it is decreased because voters can simply pick a different candidate other than the target or the attacker. I’d like to believe that this would significantly erode the value of negative campaigning, and help ease partisanship.

But the main benefit of multi-seat districts is that it will allow small parties to get candidates elected, and this will allow those parties and their politicians to have a voice in American politics. In a two seat district a candidate getting as little as 30% of the vote might gain office. This could mean that in a very conservative district the main line Republican get the most votes, but a Tea Party candidate might come in second, and also go to Congress. In a three seat district a candidate with as little as 10% of the vote could gain office. This would allow minor parties to have politicians win elections and go to Congress, which would allow their ideas to be taken seriously, and would help these small parties gain and their ideas gain traction. This would bring new people and new ideas into the national political debate. This would alter our national politics from a rigid two party system to a multi-party system with two main parties.

Another fundamentally important benefit of a multi-party system is that it would force the political debate to consider issues outside of the left versus right dichotomy. Third parties might not end the Democrat versus Republican death match, but it would force the American media to recognize that every issue doesn’t fall neatly along the liberal versus conservative divide. This would force them to consider issues more rationally and fully. And this might help convince some Republicans that Democrats simply have different views on how to solve complex national issues. And this might drain some of the bitterness from our political divide.

We call them “third parties,” but the reality is that would probably be a number of minor parties. On the right, along with the Republican Party their might be a libertarian party (perhaps the Tea Party), and a Christian Conservative Party. On the left, along with the Democratic Party, there might be an environmental or “Green” Party, and perhaps even a labor party. There may even be regional parties.
In the multi-seat system that I am suggesting it is highly likely that all would gain at least a few seats in Congress. And it is possible, depending upon the mood of the country, that one or more minor party might gain enough power to be a player in Congress. Let’s say, for example, that there are 200 Republicans and 200 Democrats in the House, with 15 Greens, 15 Libertarians, and 5 Christian Conservatives. These small parties could align with the major parties to push through parts of their agendas, and could ally with different parties for different things. This would force Congress to compromise in order to govern.

So why don’t we still have multi-seat districts? Multi-seat districts existed in this country from before the nation’s founding until 1968. The Constitution gives each state the authority to establish rules for electing members to Congress, and the states chose a variety of different methods. Some elected Representatives “at large,” some had multi-seat districts, and others (in fact the majority) had single seat districts. In the 1960’s the Supreme Court began to strike down a number of poorly apportioned districts, and blatantly racially discriminatory systems for choosing Representatives, so in 1967 Congress passed the Uniform Congressional District Act, which established uniform rules for Districts, and a single Representative from each district. This, like bell-bottoms, seemed like a good idea at the time, but has fallen out of fashion and should be repealed. Once the law is repealed on the national level the states will once again have the ability to determine who to choose their Representatives. Some may decide to return to at large elections, others may choose multi-seat districts, and others remain with the current single-seat districts. Let me reiterate that point. I am not suggesting that every state be required to adopt multi-seat districts. What I am suggesting that states once again have that option.

Breaking states up into multi-seat districts will be much easier to do in a small, densely populated state like New Jersey. New Jersey currently has a population of roughly 8.8 million people, and currently has 13 Representatives. Since it is so small and densely populated, it might be possible to break the state up into multi-seat districts without increasing the total number of Representatives. The state could easily be split into four districts, with three districts electing three representatives, and the fourth district electing Representatives to four seats.

Since I am running for a seat in Kentucky, I’ll use Kentucky as an example. Kentucky currently has a population of roughly 4.4 million people, and six congressional districts. It would be possible to break the state up into two districts with three seats each, or three districts, with two seats each. Under the second part of my proposal, which would increase the number of Representatives to one Representative for every 500,000 people, Kentucky would have 8 Representatives. This would go up to nine if the population increases to over 4.5 million people after the 2020 census. If there were one Representative for every 300,000 people, Kentucky would have 14 Representatives, and this would go up to 15 if the population increases to 4.5 million people.

If Kentucky had 8 Representatives the state could be split into three large electoral districts, two with three representatives and one with two representatives. The population, and size, of the districts would vary accordingly so that each representative would account for roughly 500,000 people.
Each electoral district would also be split into constituency districts, so each elected representative would directly represent the interests of a set group of people within his or her constituency district.
In an election there would be a slate of candidates. If there are three representatives then there should be something like 8 or 9 candidates on the slate. Under this scenario there are a couple of different possible voting systems. In one (which is my least preferred) each voter would get to choose one candidate, and the three candidates with the highest vote totals would be elected. A more preferred alternative would allow each voter to choose three candidates from the list (this is what most people are familiar with in many city council elections), and again the top three would be elected. In an alternate version of this system, each voter would be able allocate their three votes, giving one candidate all three, or one candidate two votes and another one vote. Again the top three would be elected. In a fourth version, the voter would rank their top three choices, choosing a first choice, a second choice, and a third choice. The first choice would receive three points, second two points, and third one point, and the three candidates with the most points would be elected. All four systems are used in different countries around the world, and each has strengths and weaknesses. But the main strength is that they all produce more representative legislative bodies than the current system.

A multi-seat electoral system would also require a new process to set the slate of candidates standing for election. Under the system I’m proposing, the major parties would get more candidates than minor parties, but no more than the total number of seats at stake. So in a three seat election each of the major parties would have no more than three candidates standing for election. The actual number would depend on the results in the previous election. So in a state almost totally dominated by Republicans, like South Carolina, the Republicans might get three candidates, and the Democrats only two. Smaller parties might get one each. In the first election under this system third parties (and fourth, fifth, sixth … parties) could get on the ballot based on signatures on petitions, or possibly on polling numbers. In a conservative state this might mean that the Tea Party might field their own candidate (or candidates), and in a liberal state it might mean that the Green Party might have candidates. In subsequent elections minor parties would get on the ballot based on prior election results, but there would always be the ability to get on the ballot based on signatures on a petition.

This system would significantly increase the likelihood that a minor party might gain enough votes to get candidates elected. Under this system it’s possible that the top three candidates might each receive roughly a third of the vote, resulting in their easy election. Or it might mean that four candidates are close, with each receiving roughly 25%, and with third winning, and fourth not winning. It is most likely, however, that the leading candidate might receive nearly 50%, the second might receive 30% and third might receive 20%. This means that a candidate might be elected with only 20% of the vote. And this would mean that a candidate with a smaller but highly loyal following could win an election. In some conservative leaning states this might mean that the Tea Party would become a real political party with candidates winning seats under their own banner, and not as an adjunct to the Republican Party. In others it might mean the development or a Green or a Labor party.

This system is more representative than the current system. Under the current “winner take all” system the candidate that wins 50% plus one vote represents 100% of the people, even though his or her partisan beliefs may not be shared (or may be abhorred) by 49.9% of the citizens of the district. This means that those voters who chose the losing candidate are, or at least feel that they are, unrepresented. In a multi-seat district most voters would have voted for at least one elected candidate, so they will feel that they have some representation in Congress.

In most states I imagine that the partisan break-down and electoral results would roughly mirror what we already have. Even in traditionally liberal states, like New York, there are Republican Congressmen, and even in strongly conservative states like Texas, there are Democratic Congressmen. This would not change. But what would change is that many districts would have a mixed Congressional delegation. There are democrats in even the most conservative district. I know that personally. I once lived in the Congressional District of Tom DeLay, one of the most conservative members of Congress in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. DeLay generally got over 60% of the vote and won easily, but this meant that there were about 40% of the population that might vote for a Democrat. Under the existing system these people are essentially unrepresented. But under my proposal, this district would probably elect two Republicans (or possibly a Republican and a Libertarian), but the remaining 40% might be able to elect a lone Democrat.

On the flip side, in a traditionally liberal state, like New York, the Democrats would most likely get the most votes, and likely win two seats in many districts, but it is possible that a Republican might get enough votes to gain a seat. This would mean that in traditionally liberal states Democrats would still win the most seats, but it would make it much more likely that Republicans would have elected representatives in almost all districts. This is in stark contrast with the current system, where voters whose candidate did not win are essentially unrepresented. (I should note that most Representatives take seriously their obligations to all their constituents, and provide assistance regardless of political orientation of the constituent.)

So there are two major benefits to this system. First it would allow the election of “third-party” candidates, and second it would ensure some representation for most people in every district.
There are a number of other benefits to establishing multi-seat districts.

It would largely eliminate political Gerrymandering of districts. While there might be some attempt to Gerrymander (I’d put nothing past many legislators), it would be exceedingly difficult to craft a district where all of one party’s candidates would win.

It would minimize the effectiveness of negative campaigns. There is little benefit to tearing down an opponent when there are multiple candidates and multiple seats. One candidate may go negative, but eliminating one opponent wouldn’t assure victory in a multi-candidate and multi-seat district. And if a candidate attacks all of his opponents then clearly he’s a jerk (note masculine since most negative campaigning is done by male candidates). The elimination of negative campaigning should help tone down the anger and bitterness in political campaigns. And once much of the rancor is eliminated from campaigns it might also be reduced in the general political discourse.

It would lead to effective third parties. As noted above, under this system it would be possible for a candidate to win a seat as a representative with 20% (or even less) of the vote. This would mean that smaller parties with a devoted following, like the conservative Tea Party, or the liberal Green Party, might win a few elections in favorable districts. This would introduce more voices into the political debate, and this would increase the number of ideas and solutions to any given national problem.
It would eliminate what I call the destructive duality. One of the problems in American politics is that both sides of the political spectrum have come to believe that the other side is actually trying to harm the nation. This is caused, at least in part, by the fact that in our two party system every issue can be presented as an either/or choice: and either/versus/or easily becomes good versus bad. And once partisans present their ideas as good, and their opponent’s ideas as bad, it’s another easy step to believe that your opponent is bad, and taking action that is bad for the nation. And someone taking action that is bad for the nation must be stopped at all cost. (And if you don’t think that partisans think that way, watch Sean Hannity or Lawrence O’Donnell.) But if there are a number of policy choices, a number of candidate choices, and a number of different ideas on the table, it is more difficult to label one idea as good and the other idea as bad. And this will reduce the demonization of political opponents.