The Winner-Take-All Problem in Fort Lee, New Jersey

by Kevin Werner // Published January 21, 2014

Spotlighted Facts:

  • Number of the 40 state legislative districts in New Jersey with three current representatives (two in General Assembly and one in Senate) of the same party: 37
  • Number of the 40 districts with one-party representation in both 2011 and 2013: 37
  • Percentage of total vote for Republican General Assembly candidates in 2013 compared to their percentage of seats won: 51% of the vote / 40% of the seats


New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been embroiled in a scandal ever since emails revealed that top members of his staff shut down lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge, allegedly to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing the Governor. Others, including MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, have speculated that Christie aides had the lanes closed to punish state Democratic leader, Senator Loretta Weinberg, after Senate Democrats rejected Christie 's State Supreme Court nominee.

If someone inside the Christie administration wanted to get revenge on Democratic politicians for not supporting the Governor, it's easy to see why Fort Lee would be the target of choice. Fort Lee is located in New Jersey's 37th legislative district. In the 2013 election, the district elected Democrats to both its General Assembly Seats and its State Senate seat. This was the case in 2011 as well. In fact, the district has been represented by two Democratic representatives and a Democratic Senator since it was established in 1974. It's no wonder that Port Authority executive David Wildstein assuaged his correspondent's fears that the lane closing would harm schoolchildren by describing them as "the children of [Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara] Buono voters."

Leaving aside the moral repugnancy of targeting a city because of who it elected, the idea that Fort Lee is universally Democratic is flawed. District 37's entirely Democratic representation does not, in fact, accurately reflect its population. Instead, this outcome is a product of winner-take-all elections. The district has never had a Republican representative, but that is not because of a lack of Republicans in the district. In the 2013 elections for state legislature, roughly one third of the citizens of the 37th district cast their votes for Republican candidates. 26,326 votes were cast for the two Republican candidates for the Assembly, and 13,038 votes were cast for the Republican candidate for the Senate. However, the existence of any of these Republicans is impossible to see by just looking at the district's elected representatives. This is the inherent problem with the winner-take-all system: minority groups in a district get no representation.

If the 37th district had a Republican representative, the Christie administration would have been less likely to see the entire geographic region of Fort Lee as "the enemy," and deserving of punishment. The problems in New Jersey's 37th district are present throughout the state. Each district in New Jersey has two Assembly Members and one State Senator, but in all but three of the 40 districts the representatives are from the same party. This is true even in the 18th district, where all three representatives are Democrats but only 53% of the votes in that district were cast for Democrats.  After the 2011 election, every single district had two General Assembly members of the same party.

Furthermore, in 2013, more than 50% of votes for General Assembly candidates were cast for Republicans, but 60% of the candidates elected to the Assembly were Democrats. The full data on how monopoly politics plays out in New Jersey's state legislative districts can be viewed here.

This distorted and monopolized representation is caused by the winner-take-all electoral system and is amplified by the use of multimember districts. A winner-take-all system with multimember districts makes it likely that the voice of the minority will be shut out in most districts.

A solution to this problem would be to keep multimember districts but switch the method of election to a fair representation voting system, such as ranked choice voting. In such a system, a group would need only enough voters for its candidate to reach a certain threshold in order to be elected, and not a majority. If there were three seats open in the 37th district, only about one fourth of the votes would have to be cast for a Republican in order for that candidate to win election. This system would allow for more accurate representation in each district, which would in turn lead to a more reflective state legislature.

Shared representation would stop politicians from dividing up the country into their territory and their opponents' territory. Winner-take-all elections have allowed political polarization to cause geographic polarization. Under normal circumstances, that is damaging for political discourse and policymaking, and in extreme situations can lead to events like the "Bridgegate" scandal. Fair representation voting would be an important first step toward breaking out of the paradigm of geographic polarization.