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Partisan ‘doom loop’? The answer is more parties, this group says

Roll Call logo Roll Call 4/8/2022 Jim Saksa
In the current two-party system, “one side is incentivized to just obstruct and stop,” say leaders of Fix Our House. Above, a woman votes in D.C.’s primary in June 2020. © Provided by Roll Call In the current two-party system, “one side is incentivized to just obstruct and stop,” say leaders of Fix Our House. Above, a woman votes in D.C.’s primary in June 2020.

There are two kinds of people who, upon deep and earnest reflection, really believe Washington just doesn’t work. The first are the kind of right-wing populists who enthusiastically flocked to Donald Trump in 2016, chanted “Lock her up!” with sincerity, and think the 2020 election was stolen.

The second set thinks Washington is busted because the first not only exists, but may reclaim power soon, even after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

“Congress is broken. It’s gridlocked, it’s dysfunctional,” said Eli Zupnick, a member of that second group. “We have a two-party system where one party has been taken over by anti-democratic elements, and things are only going to get worse.”

The answer to this problem, Zupnick said, is simple: proportional representation.

Zupnick co-founded a new advocacy group, Fix Our House, which argues that the only way to break America out of its political “doom loop where voters in each party see each other as enemies” is to change the way elections work — specifically, elections to the House of Representatives.

Zupnick founded the group along with two political scientists: Lee Drutman, a senior researcher at New America, and Charlotte Hill, a researcher with the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. They’ve attracted support and board members from across the political spectrum, from lefties like Waleed Shahid of Justice Democrats to Never Trump Republicans like Miles Taylor of the Renew America Movement.

They believe proportional representation is the key to ending gerrymandering, breaking up congressional deadlock and reducing partisan divisions. The group argues that the nation is being driven to political extremes by an electoral system that might have worked before cable news, social media, super PACs and modern campaigning but now rewards those who promise to burn it all down.

So, instead, Fix Our House proposes a remodel.

Congressional contests are currently decided by a winner-take-all system that declares the candidate with the most votes (or, in some states, a majority of the votes following potential runoff elections) the winner. In effect, voting in a single-member district means the voters who backed the loser also lost — they remain unrepresented. (In the red, rural parts of California, there has long been a proposal to split off from the coastal part of the state, born out of this frustration over a lack of representation; Republicans in Eastern Oregon recently launched a similar effort.)

In a proportional representation system, voters have the chance to elect multiple candidates to represent them. For example, right now all nine of Massachusetts’ House delegation members are Democrats, even though about a third of Bay State voters backed Trump in 2020. In a proportional system, Massachusetts would elect something closer to six Democrats and three Republicans to the House — at least in theory.

There are lots of ways of doing proportional representation, and the exact mechanics can have a dramatic impact on the results. But, for now, Fix Our House doesn’t want to get bogged down in the details.

“We are much more focused on making the case for proportional representation, generally, as a first step — for people to understand why this is important, to understand why the current system is broken,” said Zupnick.

Devil in the details

Proportional representation can come in many different flavors, some encouraging many different parties, others just a few — it’s not hard to design a proportional representation system that all but ensures that a plurality party dominates. Indeed, that’s what a lot of Southern states did during the Jim Crow era to keep Black candidates from winning any seats. That led to Congress banning proportional representation and mandating single-member districts for House elections in 1967.  

Still, it’s an idea that’s long intrigued American political scientists, who generally see it as more representative and supportive of consensus-based politics. As younger democracies shaking off the vestiges of monarchy in the early 20th century considered what electoral systems to adopt, most opted for proportional representation, as did those recovering from fascism later on.

New Zealand was the last stable democracy that switched from a plurality system like that used in most of the U.S. to a version of proportional representation in 1996. In the years since, the Kiwis have gone from having just two major parties in Parliament with an occasional third party to five today.

This propensity to encourage more parties is part of the appeal, said Drutman. It’s not hard to imagine our two-party system splitting into four or five separate parties — the Socialists, center-left Democrats, maybe a few Problem Solvers in the very middle, center-right Republicans, and the Freedom Party (neé caucus).

Freed from the uncompromising demands of base voters who dominate primaries, lawmakers would strike more bargains, Zupnick thinks.

“You can imagine coalitions built between different parties that can actually get something done,” he said. “But in the two-party system, where one side is incentivized to just obstruct and stop, that’s just never going to happen.”

For instance, a Socialist and Democratic coalition, along with some modicum of Republican support, could finally enact immigration reform, background checks for gun purchases or police reform. Similarly, a right-wing populist party might join with the Socialists and a few Democrats to beef up antitrust laws aimed at Big Tech. Some centrist Democrats could work with the parties on the right to boost natural gas production. In all these scenarios, the hypothetical party bases would reward their representatives for finding ways to get things done.

The folks at Fix Our House know they have their work cut out for them. The first step is convincing lawmakers to at least entertain the idea. “I don’t think this is such a radical thing,” said Drutman. “It’s the standard way most advanced democracies view elections.”

The biggest challenge is one of imagination, Drutman said. “Part of the challenge with any reform is that people have to be able to imagine what the world could be under a different set of governing rules. It’s very easy to say, ‘We don’t want to gamble because we can’t anticipate every consequence,’” he said. “But, at the same time, when we are staring at an abyss of crumbling legitimacy in our elections, hyperpartisan polarization, and the threat of violence, it is clear that the status quo is fundamentally broken.”

“Those who want to defend the status quo, and keep doing what we’re doing, have to offer an explanation of how things get better if we don’t change the rules,” he added. “Because I certainly can’t see one.”

Americans have made bigger changes to the political system before, most notably during the Progressive Era, which saw women gain the right to vote and senators become directly elected (rather than selected by the state legislatures). Ironically, this was also when the primary election system came to the fore, to reduce the power of corrupt political machines. Today, electoral reformers lament how primaries further polarization.

A bill from Virginia Rep. Don Beyer would implement a proportional representation system not unlike Ireland’s. So far, it has seven co-sponsors, all Democrats. Beyer said he knows it’ll take time to win over his colleagues. “If it takes 20 years, it’s worth it,” he said.

Beyer said he hears constantly from voters and colleagues alike who are upset that Congress can’t seem to tackle the big issues because politics get in the way.

“For me, the greatest obstacle in America right now is this division. And so how do you overcome that division? Well, there’s: you make friends with people on the other side, you don’t demonize people, blah, blah, blah,” said Beyer. “But you also maybe change the structure of the House.”

How to get past first-past-the-post

Even among members who might agree with Beyer, there is hesitation. Some believe the problem lies elsewhere, including Rep. Cheri Bustos, who thinks campaign finance reform and gerrymandering are to blame for division. “That’d be a heck of a lot better for our country, I think, if we change those two things, but the other thing [proportional representation] is confusing,” the Illinois Democrat said.

Democratic Rep. David E. Price, a political scientist who has written books on Congress while representing North Carolina for 17 terms, also had qualms with a proportional representation system, pointing to less stable governments in Israel and Italy. “Yes, moderate parties emerge, that’s true, but so do extreme parties,” he said. “I think the focus should be on trying to make our system work.”

Fix Our House’s goal is to move the Overton window, and its strategy for doing so isn’t very different from the one used on the last reform campaign Zupnick worked on, Fix Our Senate, which wants to end the filibuster. Even though the filibuster remains in place, Zupnick argues it has mostly succeeded in making the once radical-sounding idea politically palatable to all but two Senate Democrats.

The proportional representation push does have some things going for it that other democratic reforms do not. It could be enacted by passing a law rather than a constitutional amendment (which would be needed to change how Senate elections work). It’s also presumably constitutional, unlike many proposals for overhauling the campaign finance system that would face a hard time in a Supreme Court that has equated money with speech. Those who lament how fragmented media ecosystems and disinformation on social media drive the electorate apart similarly have First Amendment issues to contend with. 

Many states are now experimenting with ranked-choice voting, a reform that Fix Our House applauds but doesn’t think goes far enough. If these elections go well, it could lower voters’ and lawmakers’ worries about more dramatic experiments. Drutman hopes they can set the stage for some kind of blue ribbon commission to explore proportional representation, something akin to the Royal Commission that led to New Zealand’s change.

Like Fix Our Senate, Fix Our House hopes to familiarize policymakers and influential staffers with the concept while building a coalition of other advocacy groups that will pressure lawmakers to endorse it.  That’ll set the stage for reform when the moment to act presents itself, Zupnick said.

“Things are going to continue to get worse, and there could come a point — hopefully not, but it is very likely — where we have another crisis in America, maybe something similar to Jan. 6,” he said.

In order to get a bill like Beyer’s through Congress — or even just one that would let states try proportional representation — Fix Our House will need to convince some elected Republicans to join them. Drutman and Zupnick believe the GOP’s moderates will see proportional representation is in their best interests. (Beyer’s bill delays implementation until 2032 under the theory they might set aside personal campaign concerns for the reform.)

“I think we all recognize that we’re in a moment of tremendous democratic crisis,” said Drutman.

But, so far, few centrist Republicans have heeded similar arguments about voting rights legislation. Even those who voted to impeach Trump after Jan. 6 and angrily rebuke the lies about widespread election fraud in 2020 don’t support the bills introduced by Democrats, seeing them more as Democratic ploys to gain voters than democratic protections.

The For the People Act doesn’t have a single Republican co-sponsor in the House or the Senate. Related bills that focus on just one aspect of that package, like the Same Day Registration Act and the Presidential Tax Transparency Act, also get no GOP support. Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania has a bill that would curtail gerrymandering by requiring nonpartisan commissions to draw district maps, but it has only one co-sponsor. Beyer’s version of the Freedom to Vote Act has three Republican co-sponsors, but the Senate version has none.

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