Every election season, we’re urged to participate by voting. This works when candidates pull people in, but it’s less than inspiring when people vote out of the fear that someone they don’t like will be elected. We’ve all heard variations of the line “Vote because it’s your duty,” and while I agree, the real problem is the sucky choices we get on the ballot. The good news is that things don’t have to be this way—at least not when it comes to Congress. We can pass election laws, without changing our Constitution, in a way that truly engages voters.
There’s an uneasy silence when it comes to races for the House. I find that most people don’t even know who represents them in the Capitol. If we stood in front of a supermarket with a picture of Justin Bieber and a picture of the local congressperson, I bet 19 out of 20 people wouldn’t recognize the latter. This is not our fault. It’s the result of the wall the House has built around itself.
I became involved in politics in the mid-1990s, working with others to fight music censorship on the local and state levels. Along the way I noticed how many elections were effectively uncontested, and I wanted to know why. The culprit is gerrymandering: political insiders drawing district lines that benefit them and the mainstream parties they work for. Nine out of 10 House races are in the “safe seat” column, in districts where the outcome is a foregone conclusion. This is why most people can’t name their U.S. representative: The lack of competition is repellent.
What if voters could pick a candidate who inspired them and who had a chance at winning in a fair election? There is a way.
We can fix that with a federal law that empowers independent commissions to redraw district lines so political elites can no longer manipulate elections. California voters passed such a law. The awesome power of redistricting was handed over to a citizens’ commission, and the old district lines, custom made for politicians, were wiped off the map. What if we took it one step further so you and I could share in this power? What if voters could pick a candidate who inspired them and who had a chance at winning in a fair election?
There is a way.
The idea that a district should be represented by only one person has no constitutional basis and is flat-out wrong. The system stems from the Uniform Congressional District Act, a 1967 federal statute that resulted in a gerrymandered wall around the House. Prior to that law, many states allowed districts to elect multiple representatives. Unfortunately, political insiders manipulated the rules to disenfranchise racial minorities, making sure the white majority swept all the seats—hence the law.
But the problem is not multi-seat districts. We need voting rules that use these kinds of districts to give more people a real voice in elections. Here’s how we get to a potent vote and fair representation.
Imagine a three-seat district where each citizen gets one vote to elect three people. This wouldn’t necessarily mean an increase in the number of House seats; the redistricting process would entail consolidating multiple districts in each state, so the country’s grand total could stay at 435. (That number, by the way, is a political decision and not a constitutional requirement.)
So how would this work? It’s as simple as electing the top three vote winners. We would see districts electing both Republicans and Democrats. And of course there would be space for third parties and independents. No more voters getting stuck in a district that favors one party or another.
This system is constitutionally protected, and many examples can be found in local governments—especially in places that needed to remedy racial-disenfranchisement issues under the Voting Rights Act.
Things get more potent when we use ranked-choice voting, following the example of cities in California’s Bay Area, as well as Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, and Portland, Maine. With this system, you rank your candidates first, second and third. The three candidates with the most votes win.
We need to take the power out of the hands of insiders and put it where it belongs—in the hands of voters. While issues such as money in presidential campaigns and gender identity in public bathrooms dominate politics, our broken congressional elections pass under the radar. We ignore them at our peril. In essence we are giving away this cornerstone of our constitutional system to the interests that control the Washington, D.C. political culture. It’s time to make Congress the “People’s House” it was designed to be.
This November, many people will hold their nose as they vote in the presidential election. Regardless of whom you choose for the highest office in the land, imagine casting a strong and meaningful ballot for the U.S. House under a system of fair representation. This is the inspiration that will tear down the wall Congress has built around itself.
Best known as the bassist of Nirvana, Krist Novoselic chairs the electoral-reform group FairVote and is a longtime advocate for freedom of expression and association. He lives in Washington state.