Most Americans agree that Congress is broken; our national legislature is unresponsive to popular opinion, unrepresentative of the population, and incapable of governing. Yet few of us seem to be talking about the problem, let alone doing anything about it.
The root of Congress’s problems lies in the way we elect its members, particularly those in the House of Representatives. Broadly speaking, there are two ways to elect a legislature; winner take all; sometimes called “first past the post,” and proportional representation.
Winner Takes All, everybody else loses
Winner takes all means that only the party that receives a majority in an electoral jurisdiction gets representation, everybody else gets left out.
The most noticeable advantage to first past the post is that it can force politicians to listen to everybody and encourage them to represent the entire community. Another attribute is that extremist minorities are prevented from jamming up the system or forcing unpopular ideas on everybody else.
The drawback to winner takes all is that large swaths of the electorate are left with no representation – and little influence. This system can breed distrust of government, and convince many citizens that political change can only be achieved through violence or civil disobedience.
A noticeable defect of winner takes all is to discourage large numbers of people from participating in the political process. Another is to encourage cynicism about politics and skepticism of government.
Proportional representation means that representatives are elected based on a percentage of the population. For example, any candidate that gets 30% or 40% of the vote gets a seat in the legislature.
The advantage to proportional representation is that most people are represented. Most minority groups get at least some seats and a voice in government.
The drawback to proportional representation is that small; often ideologically-motivated, minority factions are in a position to gum up the works by blocking legislation. In the worst case scenario, groups with little or no popular support are able to impose their will on rest of society.
Gridlock and polarization are often the effects of proportional representation. Basic parliamentary tasks such as enacting a budget, appointing officials, and writing legislation, become impossible in the worst case scenario of proportional government.
The Worst of Both Worlds
In America, we have managed to create a Congress that combines the worst aspects of both systems.
Vast numbers of people; including rural residents, secularists, non-Evangelical Christians, inner-city residents, most African Americans, many conservatives, most progressives, libertarians, Hispanics, and most lower-income people get little or no representation in Congress because of Winner Takes all.
If you are a Democrat who lives in Utah; or a Republican who lives in most of California or New York City, you can forget about having Congressional representation. A Christian in Vermont; a conservative in Oregon, a liberal in Kansas, or a secularist in Alabama, can forget about having any sway in Congress.
To make matters worse an unholy mix of gerrymandering, primary elections, and voter suppression imposes proportional representation on many areas. The gravest problem is that America has proportional representation for specific groups; such as rural whites, gun owners, factory workers, union members, some Evangelical Christians, and a few African Americans, but nobody else.
Sorry America, Congress does not represent you
For example, American atheists and agnostics outnumber Evangelical Christians yet they get almost no representation in Congress. There is polling data that indicates secularists (atheists and agnostics) are America’s largest and fastest- growing “religious group” with around 26% of the population, yet Congress pays no attention to their concerns.
Racially things are worse; nonwhites make up 38% of America’s population but only 19% of the 115th United States Congress, Pew Research reported. There were 57.5 million Hispanics or 18% of the US population, but only 39 Latinos in Congress – or around 12% of its members.
Another example of this is the obsession of both political parties and many politicians; including President Trump, with restrictive trade policies. The idea behind trade restrictions; like those promoted by both Trump and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), is to “protect” manufacturing jobs. Yet only 12.3 million Americans out of a population of 326.766 million; or 10% of the labor force, work in manufacturing, according to Pew Research.
Politicians are obsessed with the trade issue because factory workers tend to be concentrated in a few; mostly white rural areas and they are more likely to vote. The 102.6 million Americans who work in the service industry (around 71% of the population according to Pew) basically have no representation in Congress.
That is why we hear the President, and almost all Democratic leaders, proposing restrictive trade policies; that will hurt most working families by raising prices on consumer goods while refusing to discuss raising the minimum wage. Around 58% of Americans favor a $15 minimum wage according to our friends at Pew, yet the issue is not even on the current Congress’s radar.
It is also why there is little or no incentive to impose the kind of legislative discipline that would enable Congress to pass a budget. Even though most Americans, want gridlock ended; the extremist minority groups that elect Congress like it, so gridlock becomes the status quo. The latest and most disgusting example of this was the Democrats who attacked U.S. Senators that were not willing to block the budget until they got their way on one issue – DAPA.
Some Fixes for Our Broken Congress
Now for some potential fixes to the problem. Obvious potential solutions include:
- Eliminate gerrymandering of House of Representatives districts. The logical way to achieve this would be to take the drawing of districts away from state legislatures. Possible alternatives include a national commission to draw up districts, or letting computer algorithms (which presumably have no political bias) do the job. As long as legislators control the process, districts will be drawn to their benefit. It would also be a good idea to make it illegal to consider race, ethnicity, or religion when drawing up a House District.
- Eliminate primary elections. Since only a tiny minority (around 15% to 20%) of the population participates in primaries, they are inherently undemocratic. A good alternative to primaries would be to require parties to get 5% of voters’ signatures to get on the ballot. Another is to hold an open primary where all candidates of all parties appear on the same ballot a month before the regular election. Any candidate that got at least 25% of the vote would move onto the general election.
- Create a uniform national voting system. This would make securing electoral processes, combating fraud, and eliminating voter suppression easier. Have one standard of voting, and uniform rules for polling place operation, Voter ID, etc. nationwide.
- Switch to another system of voting such as mail-in elections, ranked choice/voting instant runoff, or digital elections that would encourage more electoral participation. Other options include requiring more early voting or making election days a holiday.
- A fascinating would be to have three-seat U.S. House of Representatives districts and cumulative voting. Under cumulative voting, the top three candidates in a district each go to the House and a get a vote there.
- Three-seat districts and cumulative voting would address the concerns of rural residents and ethnic, ideological, and religious minorities that get little or no House representation. They would be more likely to have representatives in the House. Another advantage would be to provide more representation to low-population states. Seven U.S. states only have one representative in the house under the present system.
- An interesting solution might be to have one house district represent one million people or a state if its population is under one million. Each of the district’s three members would represent roughly 399,999 people.
These are just a few solutions that might make Congress more accountable. If nothing is done to reform the way we elect Congress, the United States will soon find itself in a situation where it lacks an effective national legislature. That might make continuation of our democracy and national unity impossible.