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Why Your Congressional Representative Isn’t So Representative of You

There are a lot of problems with our two-party system, and fixing them would require nothing less than a fundamental shift in the way politics work in this country. But there are better ways.
The Capitol building. (Photo: mdgn/Shutterstock)

The Capitol building. (Photo: mdgn/Shutterstock)

It is fairly old news that a growing number of Americans refuse to identify with one of our two major political parties. A record number of Americans label themselves “independent.” Of course, when pressed, as I have noted elsewhere, most people still favor one party over the other. But even when we take into account party preferences among those who do not explicitly identify with either side, over 15 percent of the public remains fundamentally unaffiliated with either the Democrats or the Republicans.

Even among the two-thirds who do side with one of the two dominant parties, few are happy about it. Only about one in three Republicans say that their party is ideologically on target, according to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study administered by YouGov/Polimetrix. The rest are pretty evenly split between wanting the party to be more conservative or more liberal. Democrats are more content, if only a bit: 54 percent say they are happy with the ideological position of the party—but 20 percent of self-identified Democrats say the party is too liberal and another 20 percent say the party is too conservative.

Part of the reason for this discontent is that the public’s views on various issues don’t line up very well with the coalition of policy positions cobbled together by the two parties’ leaders. There are pro-lifers who want a larger welfare state and pro-choicers who want less regulation and lower taxes. A growing number of Evangelical Christians, who historically have aligned with the Republican Party, are now concerned about the environment and want more government regulation to protect natural resources. There are even people who favor granting undocumented immigrants legal status and a path to citizenship but who oppose an increase in the minimum wage.

Proportional representation has the double advantage of more accurately representing the viewpoints of voters and eliminating gerrymandering, which secures the advantage of one party over another.

If you are one of these people—and you probably are—trying to find a candidate with whom you identify is basically impossible. As a colleague of mine (a committed Catholic) told me recently when I asked her how she decided to vote given her conflicting views on social welfare and abortion: “When it comes to voting (and I do vote in every election as a matter of principle), I have to hold my nose! I don't enjoy it, and I usually don't feel very good about the ballot I've cast.”

While commentators like to call on the two political parties to be more moderate, and to each move a little closer to agreement in the middle, that would not make the parties any more representative of the American public than they already are. As the numbers above illustrate, if the parties professed more moderate positions, more Republicans would feel their party was too liberal and more Democrats would complain their party was too conservative. And still the committed Catholic who wants a representative who is both pro-social welfare and pro-life would have no party to vote for that held both viewpoints.

HOW DO WE CREATE a system that would improve the level of representation of people’s varying views? We would need a system designed to promote more parties actively competing for and winning elected office. And that would require a fundamental change in the way that the U.S. allocates legislative seats.

The founders designed our electoral institutions to maximize the likelihood of majority rule and to ensure that all geographic areas have a voice in the legislature. But the single-member plurality system they delineated also maximizes the number of people whose votes are wasted, and, according to research conducted by Mount Holyoke University’s Douglas Amy, reinforces the two-party system and makes it almost impossible for outside candidates to get elected.

Many people find it unintuitive that single-member pluralities would suppress minor parties, as voters are free to vote for whomever they think is the best candidate. But there are several reasons that the design of the U.S. system prevents it.

First, and most obvious, is geography. The voters whose ideological positions don’t line up with the two major party platforms don’t all live in one state or congressional district. Instead, they are spread out. Members of the Democratic Party who feel it is too conservative are just as likely to live in Massachusetts as Oregon or even, for that matter, Texas. Since they are not the majority where they live, their preferences get lost in the sea of coalition politics. The only way for people to elect candidates who accurately represent nearly all of their major policy views is for them to achieve a regional (district or state) plurality. Thus, a substantial number of voters with identical views would have to all move to the same place for them to be able to elect their own representatives.

Another reason is the fact that voting for third parties is a risky (and often nonsensical) endeavor. Each time we vote, there is a chance we could be supporting a loser, and if we do, then we will fail to have any representation at all. In a majoritarian system with two parties, most voters find that acceptable. There are winners and losers. But when we vote for a third party candidate, we risk not just losing, but enabling the election of our least preferred option.

In the 1992 presidential election, Ross Perot won 18.91 percent of the vote. As a result, Bill Clinton won the presidency with a plurality (43 percent), not a majority. It is not completely clear whom Perot supporters would have voted for had they been given only two choices. However, had 65 percent of Perot voters preferred George H.W. Bush, Clinton would have lost the popular vote in a two-party race.

For Perot voters who would have preferred Bush over Clinton, their vote was more than just lost. By casting it for Perot, they helped to guarantee that Clinton, their least preferred of the three candidates, gained office.

It is unlikely that that many Perot supporters would have voted for Bush over Clinton, but even had they split 50/50 nationwide, a large majority in a few key battleground states could have changed the outcome of the election. The same thing happened in 2000: had almost any of the third-party candidates on the Florida ballot dropped out and their votes gone to Al Gore, he would have received a majority in the Electoral College.

While it is easy to focus on these results in presidential elections, national contests are less likely to be determined by the presence of a third party than are tight congressional races.

In 2008, in the hotly contested Senate race in Minnesota, Democrat Al Franken eventually defeated incumbent Republican Norm Coleman by only 215 votes after a recount. But 460,225 Minnesotans—enough to shift the outcome more than 2,100 times over—cast their ballots for one of the three candidates running with minor political parties. Had merely one half of one tenth of one percent of these voters decided to endorse Coleman instead, the election would have gone the other way.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio (R) might not have been elected in 2010 had the rest of the electorate not split between his two opponents, Charlie Crist (I) and Kendrick Meek (D).

And in 2012, Senator Jon Tester of Montana (D) would have lost his re-election bid had 57 percent of the 31,892 people who voted for the Libertarian candidate instead cast their ballots for his Republican opponent.

For anyone paying attention, the lesson is obvious: don’t waste your vote on a third-party candidate, even if you prefer that party’s platform. The single-member plurality system discourages voting for people who represent your interests better (or more precisely) than candidates from the two major parties.

There’s also redistricting, which can guarantee that while individual members win by large margins, legislative bodies end up controlled by the party clearly preferred by a minority of the voters. In the 2012 congressional elections, for example, the average House Republican won with an electoral margin of well over 20 points—pretty good. Still, Democratic House candidates combined brought in about 1.4 million more votes than Republicans, and yet, the GOP has a sizable advantage in the House.

There are better ways of designing a democracy to ensure more accurate representation of the public. Most scholars point to proportional representation; it has the double advantage of more accurately representing the viewpoints of voters and eliminating gerrymandering, which secures the advantage of one party over another.

Proportional representation allocates multiple seats to a large district instead of the one seat we currently allocate to small districts. So, for example, if we had a proportional representation system where the districts were the states, then Pennsylvania would have its current 18 congressional seats, but those seats would be allocated based on the statewide vote.

In 2012, just over 2,700,000 Pennsylvanians cast their ballots for a Democratic Party candidate for the House of Representatives, while a little more than 2,600,000 voted for a Republican Party candidate. Yet, 13 Republicans and only five Democrats were sent to Congress to represent the Keystone state. In a proportional representation system, Democrats and Republicans each would have won nine seats. Of course, this assumes that no other parties had candidates on the ballot. In a proportional representation system, it is likely that there would have been at least one Libertarian elected, and possibly a few from other minor parties more representative of the diverse views of Pennsylvanians. As a result, a few less Democrats or Republicans might have been elected, replaced by candidates from other parties that secured enough of the proportional vote to earn a seat in Congress.

Commentators and pundits can call all they want for more bipartisanship and more moderate voting by congressional lawmakers, and they can call for public funding for campaigns and attention from the media to increase third-party access. But without a fundamental alteration to the way we apportion congressional seats, we will have to continue to hold our noses and be represented by two parties that only a small portion of the public is happy with.