A Real Solution to Polarization

As I mentioned briefly, I met Krist Novoselic on Friday, and though I’m a big Nirvana fan the actual subject was his work as chairman of Fair Vote, an excellent organization pushing a variety of worthy reforms to the American electoral system.

One of the things we talked about was the remarkable fact that for all the bellyaching in Washington about the related topics of gerrymandering and polarization, elites seem totally blind to the ways in which shifting to a more proportional system could ameliorate these problems. When Americans hear “proportional” they often immediately leap to imagining something like a nationwide closed party list system, but a much more realistic and practical solution would be to have multiple member congressional districts with single transferrable vote.

What does that mean and what does it have to do with polarization?

Well, take New York City. Instead of carving the city up into 13 or 14 different districts with members elected by plurality, all of them won by Democrats, the whole city could vote proportionally for a slate of 13–14 members of congress, and several of them would wind up being Republicans with the exact number depending on political fortunes. This would reduce what I think bothers people about polarization in congress in at least two ways. One is that though on many issues the NYC Republicans and NYC Democrats would fiercely disagree, on a bunch of other issues that have substantial regional or urban/non-urban elements to them the NYC bloc would be collaborating along with other bipartisan congressional blocks against other bipartisan congressional blocks. The other is that the balance of power in congress wouldn’t be determined by a relatively small number of “swing districts.” In any given election, Democrats and Republicans alike would have plausible pickup opportunities all across the country — even in New York City — meaning that it would make sense for the GOP to always at least think about trying to answer the concerns of American cities.


Then on the flipside, if Nebraska elected its three-member congressional delegation in a proportional manner you wouldn’t have the scenario where 41 percent of Nebraskans vote for Barack Obama but 100 percent of them are represented in the House by conservative Republicans. All regions of the country would have a measure of bipartisan representation, and both parties would have substantial blocs of members to advocate for the interests of different kinds of places.