Whatever your personal politics, whatever your opinions on these issues, it must be acknowledged: our representative democracy isn’t.
There are any number of explanations for this phenomenon. It could be argued that increased self-sorting has resulted in geographic areas of significant partisan polarization, eliminating the possibility of moderate candidates or compromise. A case could be made for the prevalence of “dark money” in elections, largely untraceable funds from high-dollar donors that skew elections towards extremes. But, as this report argues, there is perhaps no greater threat to representative democracy than modern attempts at voter suppression.
One of the most looming threats to voting rights is partisan redistricting. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “extreme partisan bias in congressional maps account[s] for at least 16-17 Republican seats in the current Congress”. Put another way, there are 16 or 17 seats in the House of Representatives that are not a result of hard campaigning, but clever mapmaking. Voting reform advocacy organization FairVote writes that gerrymandering has resulted in:
- Fewer Competitive US House Districts and Safe Incumbents After Redistricting: In 2010, 70 of 435 U.S. House districts had a competitive partisan balance of 47% to 53%. That was small, but after redistricting in 2011, the number of competitive districts declined to only 53. That number dropped again to 47 seats (only 11% of all seats) after the 2012 election due to shifts in voting behavior. Of 31 vulnerable incumbents (those who won by less than 10% in 2010) affected by redistricting (with a new district drawn with partisanship changing by more than 3%), 26 had their district made safer and only five less safe.
- Partisan Distortions In Politically Drawn Plans: In 2011, Republican lawmakers drew new district lines in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. In 2012, Democratic U.S. House candidates won more than Republican candidates in both states, but won only 9 of 31 seats.
- Partisan Distortions In Commission Drawn Plans: In 2011, an independent redistricting commission drew lines in California and a bipartisan commission with a public interest “swing vote” drew lines in New Jersey. In 2013, Republican candidates for the New Jersey assembly won 51% of the vote, but only 32 (40%) of 80 seats. In 2014, Democratic U.S. House candidates won 57% of votes in California’s 53 U.S. House races, but 74% of seats. 
In Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, David Daley writes that, in the 2012 elections, “Democratic House candidates [in Pennsylvania] won 51 percent of the vote, and Democratic House candidates won 28% of the state.” The gerrymandering in North Carolina, which targeted African-Americans, resulted in a close 50/50 split of the vote, but the Republicans won 69% of the available seats. All over the country, partisan redistricting has resulted in a skewed electoral landscape in which the will of the voters is not reflected in the results of the election.
Put simply, this is an obscenity. And understand, this is not a partisan issue. Republicans claim, rightly, that Democrats have used the same techniques to distort the will of the people. This report is not concerned with politics or parties. Partisan redistricting is wrong no matter who is in charge. The solution is not to change who is in power, but remove politics from the redistricting process entirely.
The easiest way to solve gerrymandering and partisan redistricting is through Non-Partisan Redistricting (NPR). Different individuals and organizations have attempted to model hypothetical redistricting techniques. Below are samples of maps of Georgia created using NPR. Figures 2 and 3 are maps of Georgia’s Congressional districts; Figure 4 is a map of Georgia’s State Senate districts; Figure 5 is a map of Georgia’s General Assembly districts.
In Figure 3, NPR reduced the average distance between a voter and the center of her district from 30 miles to 24.7 miles.
Fig. 4: Georgia’s Congressional Districts with NPR (Left) and the 2010 district map (Right). Via Brian Olsen, Bdistricting.
In Figure 4, NPR reduced the average distance between a voter and the center of her district from 13.9 miles to 11.5 and reduced the difference in population between the most populous district and the least populous district from 3,180 to 1,548.
And in Figure 5, NPR reduced the average distance between a voter and the center of her district from 7.5 miles to 6.25 miles. All of these maps are re-drawn in such a way that partisanship is largely avoided. This would result in districts that were fairer, both to voters and to candidates. But there is still more that could be done.
Independent redistricting is a step in the right direction, but we can only accomplish true representation when we embrace a proportional voting system. This is because the goals of independent redistricting (making districts more competitive and increasing fair representation) are mutually exclusive. Consider the following scenario: A candidate for office wins 80% of the vote. She will take her seat representing 8 out of every 10 voters—obviously, she is the best choice for representing the majority of the voters. However, her opponent only received 20% of the vote, meaning the election was almost laughably uncompetitive.
Now, consider the alternative scenario: our hypothetical candidate wins 51% of the vote. Her race was obviously far more competitive, but now, as many as 49% of the voters will not be represented when she takes office. There is no situation in which a winner-take-all election can be both competitive and representative.
The solution to this can be found in a variety of proportional voting systems. Different legislatures and districts around the country use a variety of proportional elections; the most notable was Illinois, which used cumulative voting to elect its state House of Representatives from 1870 to 1980.
The voting advocacy organization FairVote has proposed a national initiative to reform voting on the federal level (see Figures 6-8), but the basic theory can be scaled to the state level. At its core, the Fair Representation Act would eliminate single winner-take-all districts and replace them with fewer, larger, multiple-winner districts, with the winners being selected by ranked choice voting. The following infographics describe the problem and the proposed solution:
In Part III of Georgia Votes, we’ll explore ranked-choice and instant-runoff voting, as well as how we can go about implementing the process in Georgia.