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Many voters say Congress is broken. Could proportional representation fix it?

A perimeter fence surrounds the U.S. Capitol in February ahead of President Biden's State of the Union speech in Washington, D.C.
Mariam Zuhaib
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AP
A perimeter fence surrounds the U.S. Capitol in February ahead of President Biden's State of the Union speech in Washington, D.C.

With an increasingly polarized Congress and fewer competitive elections, there are growing calls among some election reformers to change how voters elect members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

One potential alternative to the current winner-take-all approach for House races is known as proportional representation.

Instead of the single candidate with the most votes winning a House district's seat, a proportional representation system would elect multiple representatives in each district, distributing seats in the legislature roughly in proportion to the votes each party receives.

Supporters say proportional representation could help temper the rise of political extremism, eliminate the threat of gerrymandering and ensure the fair representation of people of color, as well as voters who are outnumbered in reliably "red" or "blue" parts of the country.

And last year, a group of more than 200 political scientists, legal scholars and historians across the U.S. said the time for Congress to change is now.

"Our arcane, single-member districting process divides, polarizes, and isolates us from each other," they wrote in an open letter to lawmakers. "It has effectively extinguished competitive elections for most Americans, and produced a deeply divided political system that is incapable of responding to changing demands and emerging challenges with necessary legitimacy."

But how exactly proportional representation could change House elections is an open question with major hurdles. There's a federal law that bans it, and many of its supporters acknowledge it would likely be years, if not decades, before a majority of lawmakers allow such a big, untested restructuring of Congress.

What could proportional representation in the House look like?

There's a spectrum of ways to reform the House using proportional representation. Two key factors are how many representatives a multi-member district would have and how winners of House seats would be proportionally allocated.

In 2021, Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia led a group of other House Democrats in reintroducing a proposal that's been floating around Congress since 2017. The Fair Representation Act would require states to use ranked choice voting for House races. It calls for states with six or more representatives to create districts with three to five members each, and states with fewer than six representatives to elect all of them as at-large members of one statewide district.

Some advocates also raise the possibility of increasing the total number of House seats, which has been stuck at 435 seats for decades.

While there's no consensus on the mechanics, supporters say moving toward proportional representation could allow the country's diversity to be better represented — including in communities where elections, outside of primaries, have become non-competitive.

"When you're looking at New York City, where I live, it's a city of almost 8.5 million people. And there are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Republican voters who find themselves in districts with lopsided Democratic majorities," says Reihan Salam, a Brooklyn-based Republican who heads the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, and has written in support of proportional representation.

Salam sees proportional representation as "something that would be hugely healthy for our politics to see to it that you don't just have competitive elections in a small, tiny handful of swing districts or swing states."

And that increased competition could push political parties to be more willing to compromise and negotiate, says Didi Kuo, a fellow at Stanford University's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Kuo, who has studied versions of proportional representation systems in New Zealand, Italy and Japan, notes that many other democracies around the world have rewritten their rules "when some people are marginalized or excluded from representation, or when votes are not being translated into seats."

"How would you like it if there were a system where you could at least ensure that one person you like gets elected or one person of the party that you support?" Kuo says about what proportional representation could offer.

It could also lead to the rise of more political parties, which supporters say could boost voter turnout by expanding voters' choices in candidates.

But that could come with complications, warns Ruth Bloch Rubin, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

"We've seen how difficult it was to elect a speaker with just two parties, that when you introduce multiple parties, it increases the odds that you're going to have collective action problems, coordination problems. It's just going to be slower and harder to get people to reach agreement," says Bloch Rubin, who has written about the potential challenges that could come with switching from the current system of two major parties.

Why is proportional representation in the House against the law?

In 1967, Congress passed a law that bans a House district from electing more than one representative.

Courts hearing redistricting lawsuits at the time were considering ordering states with contested maps to use multi-member districts and hold statewide at-large elections as a temporary fix — a scenario that many lawmakers wanted to avoid. After the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law, many lawmakers also wanted to block southern states from using multi-member districts and at-large, winner-take-all elections for the House to weaken the voting power of Black voters.

Since then, lawmakers, including Beyer, have introduced bills that would undo that requirement of single-member congressional districts and allow for multi-member districts.

Former Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Campbell of California is seen in 2010. While serving in Congress back in 1999, Campbell testified in support of multi-member districts, which he says he still supports.
Paul Sakuma / AP
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AP
Former Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Campbell of California is seen in 2010. While serving in Congress back in 1999, Campbell testified in support of multi-member districts, which he says he still supports.

While serving in Congress back in 1999, now-former Republican Rep. Tom Campbell of California testified in support of multi-member districts, which he says he still supports.

"No one looks at the House of Representatives today and says, 'There's a good model of functioning governance.' No one says that. And so the interest in trying something else has never been higher," says Campbell, who is now a law professor at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and has left the GOP to form the Common Sense Party of California.

But in recent years, there's been no public support for proportional representation from Republicans in Congress, which Campbell sees as a sign of how polarized Capitol Hill has become.

"A Republican who puts her name or his name on such a bill will be targeted in the next primary election for the simple reason that you are attempting to move towards a system that might allow more members of Congress who are not Republican," Campbell says.

For many representatives, regardless of party, there's not a lot of incentive to try and disrupt the status quo that got them elected, says Bloch Rubin, the political scientist at the University of Chicago.

"Everyone's adapted their campaign and electoral strategies for the way the rules currently function," Bloch Rubin adds.

How could proportional representation ensure fair representation for people of color?

The U.S. Supreme Court's weakening of the Voting Rights Act over the past decade has helped fuel interest in proportional representation among some civil rights advocates.

While the high court upheld its past rulings on a key remaining section of that landmark law, the loss of other legal protections against racial discrimination in the election process has made it harder to ensure fair representation for people of color around the country.

"If you go into communities of color, they're increasingly disillusioned with the political process. And the system that we have now, in many ways, adds to that disillusionment," says Alora Thomas-Lundborg, strategic director of litigation and advocacy at Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. "It's a winner-take-all system, meaning that if you happen to be in a district where you don't represent the plurality of votes, then you just get no representation and folks feel as though they're not represented. And even when you're in a district where maybe you are being represented, if that district is no longer competitive, you may still feel that your elected representative is not responsive to your needs because they're not out there having to curry your vote."

For communities of color, proportional representation could, in theory, set up a House of Representatives that is more reflective of their shares of the U.S. population, which is becoming increasingly diverse in terms of race and ethnicity, Thomas-Lundborg adds.

But that promise is untested.

Thomas-Lundborg says more state and local governments adopting proportional representation systems could help assuage some concerns about what impact it would actually have in racially and ethnically diverse parts of the country.

"We are at a point where we're asking a lot of questions and trying to think about the future as the nature of the Supreme Court is changing and the demographics of our country is changing," Thomas-Lundborg says. "And it's a really important time to start thinking proactively about these issues."

Edited by Benjamin Swasey

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.
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