Who Speaks for Me?

I am a moderate Democrat, living in South Carolina.  We don’t have party representation, so I can’t prove it, but while I find much to admire in respect in a more conservative Republican position and much to appreciate in the left wing of my own party, I know my identity.  Based on results of 2018  gubernatorial(McMaster/Smith)  and 2020 senate (Graham/Harrison) races, South Carolina is about 55 percent Republican and 45 percent Democratic, although it varies depending on the candidates and the turnout.

The state, like all states, has two senators. It has seven House representatives,  currently six Republicans and one Democrat, although we did have a brief two years of 5-2 when Democrat Joe Cunningham won an unexpected victory in 2018. If our delegation in Washington was representative of the people of South Carolina, it would consist of one senator from each party and four Republicans and three Democrats in the house.  (We did have a very long period when the state had Republican Strom Thurmond and Democrat Fritz Hollings in the Senate, but that was in the distant past.)

Ah, you think, this is a diatribe about gerrymandering. Not really.  For one thing, the Senate is immune to gerrymandering, unless you think we should also redraw state lines very 10 years based on population. The idea of one person, one vote is not well served by having equal representation in the Senate for both California and Wyoming, both Texas and Delaware.  A majority of the U.S. senators currently serving were elected by 43.5 percent of the voters. So, while I would love to see one senator from each party representing the state I adopted 55 years ago, it is not going to happen. 

I am thinking about the House.   Gerrymandering may enhance the over-representation of the majority party, but the real fly in the political ointment is the winner take all structure of electing members of Congress.  At the local level, like most of our cities, we elect a city council with staggered terms, three every two years, mayor every four years.  The elections re nonpartisan, but they could just as well be partisan.  They key is that the candidates do not represent a particular part of the city—they all run against everyone else, each voter gets to vote for three, and the top three get elected. What if we did that with Congress? After all, the member of Congress from House District Three, where I live, does not just represent the interests and concerns of the northwest corner of the state, he represents our state on national matters. What If I could vote for all seven members of Congress instead of one? My chances of getting more than one member of the U.S. House whose views were closer to my own and my fellow 45 percent of South Carolina voters would be a lot better.  And we wouldn’t have to go through redrawing Congressional district lines every ten years!

Two ideas have been floating around out there for decades and have gained some traction to address this concerns in some races, although not yet for Congress.  In a few states, notably California, they have what has been nicknamed a jungle primary with multiple candidates for, say, the state legislature.  The top two candidates then go forward to the general election. Suppose you, like me, were a moderate Democrat in a heavily Republican district. If I am sure  that a Democrat will not get to the ballot in November, I might vote for the more centrist Republican so that I am more nearly represented. Very often in districts that are strongly Republican or strongly Democratic, the resulting general election will offer a choice between  two candidates of the same party representing different wings of their party, perhaps a moderate versus a liberal Democrat or a moderate versus a conservative Republican.

Another idea that people are just waking up to is ranked choice voting, which has been used in Maine for some time.  It got a lot of attention when it was used in the New York City Democratic primary for mayor. Voters rank their choices. If no one emerges with a majority from counting just firs choice votes, the vote counters drop the lowest ranking candidate and redistribute those votes to the voters’ second choices.  And so on, until someone gains a clear majority.  No runoff, and the outcome represents  a better understanding of what voters really want. Right now, there is a push on to call a Constitutional Convention.  I am wary of that effort because the nation is deeply divided and none of us from far right to far left has any idea what might be changed. But if I could change just one thing, I would rethink the way we elect the House of Representatives to make it truly representative.