Virginia has become one of the few true swing states in presidential elections and, in recent years, has experienced divided partisan control of its state legislature. You’d think that this would have prompted hotly contested state legislative races on Election Day, but in fact only 52 of 140 races had candidates from both major parties – including just 27 percent of elections for the House of Delegates.
Another round of largely uncontested races is just the latest evidence of the failure of winner-take-all, single-member district elections.
Winner-take-all inherently represents voters poorly and tempts partisans to gerrymander outcomes. Although we need other changes like independent redistricting, it’s time to look for a better way grounded in our electoral traditions: fair voting, which is an American form of proportional representation in elections taking place in larger “superdistricts.”
Fair voting may seem new to many readers, but it is used in many national elections and in a growing number of American cities as an alternative to winner-take-all rules.
Fair voting systems allow like-minded voters to pool their votes in multi-seat superdistricts to elect representatives in numbers that reflect the level of public support. It puts voters in charge of their representation in every election, rather than leaving it to redistricting mapmakers once a decade.
Several candidate-based forms of fair voting have been upheld by our courts and fit well with American traditions. Choice voting, in which voters rank candidates in order of choice in at-large elections, helped break the power of urban political machines in New York and Cincinnati. It’s used currently in Cambridge, Mass., and in Minneapolis for their citywide elections.
Used in dozens of U.S. cities today, cumulative voting provides another alternative. From 1870 to 1980, members of the Illinois House of Representatives were elected this way, with voters able to allocate three votes however they wished, with the option to give three to one candidate. Nearly every district elected both Democrats and Republicans.
We created examples of fair voting proposals for Virginia’s congressional elections and state legislative elections by combining single-member districts in proposed plans. For the House of Delegates, for example, Virginia would have 20 superdistricts, each with five members.
Using a fair voting method, winning in a five-seat superdistrict would take about 17 percent of the vote. Winning two seats would take just over a third of the vote, and winning three would require more than 50 percent.
No party would have the votes to shut out the other party from representation, meaning every voter in the state would have real general-election choices and representatives from both major parties.
Voters also would have far more choice in picking which major party candidate would get elected.
Minor parties and independents would also gain a greater chance to hold the major parties accountable and win a seat. Far more African American and Latino voters would have the power to elect preferred candidates, and women candidates would have more chances to increase their representation in the state’s congressional delegation.
Our plans for the Senate and House of Representatives provide similar outcomes. While a fair voting plan for congressional elections would require Congress to repeal a 1967 law mandating one-seat districts, Virginia can act on its own in order to take power away from the political cartographers in state legislative races and give it to voters.
With our government founded on upholding the consent of the governed, it’s time to reject winner-take-all and put voters in charge.