The principle of “one person, one vote” is fundamental to Americans’ understanding of democracy. But the common understanding of its meaning is actually quite different from the legal meaning at the heart of the Evenwel v. Abbott case. The assumption that the Supreme Court requires equality of voting power is wrong. When requiring legislative districts to be of equal population, it in fact established equality of constituent service as a constitutional right.
Yet adherence to even this principle is low. Few believe that our current Census methods come close to a perfect record of our population (and watch out — it may get even worse in 2020, given troubling battles over Census funding), making measures of population equality unreliable. Even when starting out with relatively accurate information, Census data can rapidly become out of date.
Courts make a fetish of such fictional population equality — but only at the start of each decade. In 2002, a federal court struck down Pennsylvania’s congressional redistricting plan because one district had 19 more people than another, a difference of less than 0.003 percent, yet ignored what was widely perceived as a partisan gerrymander. When courts recently required Florida and Virginia to redraw their congressional districts, states adhered strictly to the last Census’s data, even though it is six years old and was never terribly accurate. Yet by 2010, Nevada had a congressional district that had grown by more than 300,000 people during the decade, and there was no legal remedy.
These skewed figures suggest that it could be valuable to ask a new question: Is there a better way to realize voter equality in the United States than the winner-take-all methods we currently use?
The answer is an emphatic yes. By a simple statute, Congress could do far more to establish voter equality than ever achieved by the Supreme Court. The Ranked Choice Voting Act, a proposal expected to be introduced in the House next year, would require states to elect representatives through ranked choice voting (RCV) and to use multi-winner districts in states with more than one seat. States and cities could pursue similar reforms.
The first element, RCV, is an increasingly popular form of voting designed to generate outcomes as representative of voters’ desires as is possible when voters have more than two choices in an election. Voters gain the option to rank backup choices along with their first choice, and those backup choices will count if their first choice loses. That simple change means that candidates have new incentives to reach out to voters who disagree with them, with measurable impact on candidate behavior. When electing one person through ranked choice voting, more than 50 percent of voters can be sure to help elect the winner. When electing three, more than 75 percent of voters will elect winners.
Today’s combination of modern campaign techniques, voters’ increasingly rigid partisan preferences and geographic sorting means that few general elections decided by a winner-take-all rule are competitive. Giving 100 percent of representation to 51 percent majorities cements distortions in representation, exacerbates gerrymandering and accords inordinate power to primary voters who don’t represent the majority. It leads into a rabbit hole of paradoxes, often forcing those drawing district lines to choose between fair partisan outcomes, fair racial representation, competitive elections and geographic compactness.
The Ranked Choice Voting Act is the only comprehensive solution to gerrymandering. It creates a level playing field for candidates and parties and an equal voice for voters, while mitigating apportionment inequalities by reducing the number of districts and making more votes count. It could change Congress from a place where more than a third of Americans are represented by someone whose party they strongly oppose to one where every race would be meaningfully contested and nearly everyone would have a representative who reflects at least some of their values.
There are trade-offs, to be sure: Districts would grow larger, and we would need to get used to new forms of constituent service. But such reforms represent a giant step toward voter equality. After the dust from Evenwel settles, we should see whether our political process lives up to the ideal of government “of, by and for the people.”
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