Blame It on Winner-Take-All: Why Our Outdated Voting Rules Cause Congressional Crises

by Devin McCarthy, Rob Richie // Published October 1, 2013

The United States Congress has careened into a government shutdown, and everybody wants to find someone to blame. But in the accusatory frenzy, they're missing the real culprit: the voting rules that drive the political behavior of Congress.

The two major parties blame each other, of course. Many Americans just blame all of Congress, a body whose approval ratings, for practical purposes, can be rounded to zero. Most insiders point to the conservative Republicans who could end the current crisis right now by passing a "clean" continuing resolution, without modifications to the Affordable Care Act.

The problem with assigning blame is that every political actor is behaving just as our electoral rules encourage them to behave. For President Obama and the Democratic Senate, this is fairly straightforward. Voters elected Obama by five million votes and defeated all but eight Republicans in 33 Senate races in 2012. Naturally, Obama and the Senate continue to defend Obamacare, as it proved to be a winning policy.

The results for the House of Representatives were more complicated. On the one hand, Democratic House candidates won more votes than Republicans. But due to where voters live and how district lines are drawn, the Republican minority of the vote was translated into a solid majority of seats.

Republican members have followed their job descriptions to the narrowly-defined letter by operating based on the democratic mandate of their constituents, not the nationwide mandate of the Democratic popular vote victory. They can legitimately claim that it is their obligation to their voters to do everything in their power to bring the law down.

Even some Republicans who do not fit the virulent anti-Obamacare Tea Party profile are incentivized to side with the party's diehards. Nearly all House Members represent districts that are safe for their party, and have little need to appeal to general election voters. Thanks to our system of parties holding primary elections to nominate candidates, however, they do need to keep an eye on primary challenges from their party's base. These primaries are low-turnout affairs where more conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats are likely to vote in disproportionately high numbers. The representatives that fear them may not represent their districts as a whole, but they are representing the voters who actually determine whether they stay in office.

Then there is House Speaker John Boehner, the only man in the country who could single-handedly end the government shutdown. If he brings a clean resolution to a floor vote, it might well pass, with the votes of all Democrats joined by a number of Republicans who see the costs of a shutdown as greater than any theoretical concessions on Obamacare. But a majority of Republicans would not support Boehner allowing an open vote. The norm of the "Hastert Rule" -- that is, only sending bills to the floor that have the backing of a majority of the speaker's party -- is strong enough that if Boehner violates it in this critical moment, he could lose his job. Like the Republicans who worry about primary challengers, Boehner has his own incentives to stay far away from compromise.

As Dana Milbank observed last week in the Washington Post, everyone is behaving rationally. But we've reached the worst possible outcome.

Perhaps in a perfect world, all legislators would cast votes based on what they believe is best for the future of the country. But all that can be realistically expected of elected officials is that they respond to the electoral incentives with which they are presented.

It's fruitless to cast blame on individuals or caucuses or parties. Instead, it's time to start blaming the electoral system. Not just the surface problems with the system -- gerrymandering, closed primaries, money in politics, the Hastert Rule -- but the fundamental system by which we elect the House of Representatives: winner-take-all elections in which a simple majority of voters wins 100 percent of representation in a district.

Winner-take-all, combined with the current partisan geography and rising polarization (especially on the right), has produced a system in which the House of Representatives is controlled not by a majority of voters, not even by a majority of seats, but by a majority of a majority of seats. And that majority-of-a-majority isn't even answerable to the majority of voters in their districts, but to the minority that vote in the primaries. This isn't government by the people; it's -- follow us here -- government by a minority of a majority of a minority of the people. It is an absurd perversion of democracy.

Republicans currently hold 232 seats in the House. In order for a majority of those Members to approve a continuing resolution -- and thus uphold the Hastert Rule -- 117 would need to support it. There are 131 districts in the country where Mitt Romney outperformed his national average by at least 20 percent. To put that in perspective, no Democrat defeated a Republican incumbent or won an open seat in a district where Romney beat his national average by more than 4 percent.

These districts are absolutely unwinnable for non-incumbent Democrats in 2014, and their representatives have no reason to appeal to the moderates, much less the Democrats, in their districts. No redistricting plan, no matter how nonpartisan, could make them more competitive. Voters are too geographically organized by party for the congressional map to change much in the foreseeable future, as long as winner-take-all districts are maintained. There is every reason to believe that the current state of legislative brinksmanship is the new normal.

But we need not accept this irrational system. There is a statutory alternative to winner-take-all, which happens to be fully constitutional and well-tested in elections in the United States and around the world: fair representation voting. Under fair voting, members of Congress are elected in multi-member districts of three to five representatives instead of just one. In those districts, candidates are elected in proportion to their vote share. A majority of votes always wins a majority of seats, and minority groups of voters that make up more than a certain threshold of votes (25 percent in a three seat district) are always able to elect a representative.

Salon's Alex Pareene correctly identified the need for a more proportional system today. Whereas he suggested altering the constitution to create an "American parliamentary system," however, our candidate-based fair voting plan would work within the vision of the founders, preserving and even enhancing the agency of individual members of Congress.

Illinois had such a system in place until 1980 for its State House of Representatives. Long-time Illinois politicians always look back fondly on cumulative voting, their version of fair representation voting. Former state comptroller and State Senator Dawn Clark Netsch once told FairVote that "I came to realize that in those days there was such a marked difference between the House and the Senate. The House had lots more free-wheeling, innovative people, and [the State Senate] was just like a prison practically. I came to realize how much cumulative voting and multi-member districts were responsible for that difference. Some of the best legislators were Democrats from the suburban area who would never have been elected in single member districts and some of the best legislators on the Republican side were legislators from Chicago districts who would never have been elected under single member districts."

Fair representation voting would make the House of Representatives worthy of its name. Under fair voting, parties would be far less rigid, and there would more independent voting behavior and less adherence to the compromise-destroying Hastert Rule.

That's because minority groups of voters would be represented in proportion to their actual vote share -- not shut out of the House, as many currently are, nor given wildly disproportionate power. In each multi-member "super district," there would be authentic representation of not only the left and right but also the center of that district's ideological spectrum. Most districts would have at least one member with an electoral incentive to appeal to moderation and seek compromise. The left and right would have their champions too, of course, but only in proportion to their numbers.

As the shutdown persists, the need for dramatic change to our electoral system has never been clearer. Fair representation voting is the only reform strong enough to break out of the cycle of congressional gridlock.

For more information on FairVote's complete fair voting plan for the U.S. House, visit and check out our upcoming Monopoly Politics/Fair Voting 2014 report on the problems of the 2014 congressional elections and the fair voting solution.