It’s no secret that trends are destabilizing American Democracy: a collapse in competitive elections, biased outcomes that strategically advantage — or dilute — the power of one voting constituency over another, and escalating extremism, to name a few. But what if the design of our system itself could help foster a more stabilized, representative, and functional government?
At present, winner-take-all elections leave millions of Americans without real choice or meaningful voice in their elections. It’s a cross-partisan problem: despite making up 30% of the electorate, Republicans in Massachusetts don’t have any representation in Congress (all nine seats are held by Democrats). Similarly, despite making up 30% of the electorate, Democrats don’t hold any seats in Oklahoma’s five-member federal delegation.
A little-known statute enacted by Congress in 1967 — the Uniform Congressional District Act — mandates using single-member districts for U.S. House elections. In its historical context, the single-member district mandate was a critical milestone toward fairer representation, especially from a civil rights perspective, as it prohibited the practice of bloc voting. But codifying single-member districts as the only alternative system has hamstrung lawmakers from experimenting with different electoral systems that might solve key problems in our winner-take-all system.
A new report co-authored by Protect Democracy and Unite America entitled, “Towards Proportional Representation for the U.S. House: Amending the Uniform Congressional District Act,” traces the history and politics of congressional districting while suggesting how a different election system — proportional representation (also known as “PR”) — might yield a Congress that actually reflects the rich partisan, ideological, geographical, racial, socioeconomic, and cultural diversity inherent in the United States.
Proportional representation might help ensure more fair outcomes among political parties by electing multiple seats from the same district in proportion to the parties’ vote share. Proportionality might also help ensure groups of shared characteristics (like race or gender) and shared interests secure seats in proportion to votes received.
In addition to amending the UCDA, the report explores a host of policy decisions inherent in PR systems and offers considerations to guide potential future lawmaking. It argues that any transition to a new electoral system is likely more politically viable if states can retain and integrate other aspects of their current electoral system where possible, as is usually consistent with federalism principles and congressional law governing federal elections.
Notably, the report does not endorse legislation or recommend a particular proportional representation model. Instead, the report offers guiding principles and policy design options, and there is a spirit of experimentation that leans heavily on state discretion.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the report intersects significantly with other salient reforms — such as anti-gerrymandering — and discusses many legislative efforts before the present day, such as the Fair Representation Act. Reform is not zero-sum: many ideas can work in complementary ways, and it’s the foundation of previous efforts from which future learning, education, advocacy, and policymaking will continue to be constructed.
Building a more representative democracy requires learning important lessons from the past and re-designing our electoral system to yield a more competitive, participatory, and fair politics. This report is one tool to do just that.