The Senate is the target of most legislative reform efforts, and for good reason. But while the Senate was designed to be comparatively anti-democratic, the House of Representatives was the institution designed to be highly responsive to the will of the people. It was the people—through the House—who were intended to serve as the ultimate check on corruption and abuse of power. In our efforts to improve our democracy, we should not focus solely on reforming the Senate and overlook the importance of a representative and responsive House.
Today, the quality of representation in the House is declining, its institutional power and capacity are fading, and the number of people each representative is expected to represent has increased dramatically and varies considerably between districts. This is unacceptable given the intended role of the House in American democracy. To ignore this problem would be to accept that the “People’s House” will no longer fulfill the function it was designed to perform.
To achieve adequate representation, House elections should strive to achieve as few distortions of the popular will as possible, while maintaining identifiable, local representation. Most U.S. elections are first-past-the-post, also known as single-member district plurality systems (SMDP). SMDP produces identifiable local representatives but fails to accurately reflect voter sentiment. Instead, House elections should implement a single-transferable vote system (STV) within multimember districts. Multimember STV elections offer the best achievable balance between accurate reflections of voter sentiments in law-making and the accessibility of local representatives.
Ten states already use multimember districts to elect representatives to at least one of their legislative chambers. In all but the seven states that currently have only a single representative, it would be possible, and worthwhile, to create multimember districts using the House’s current apportionment. However, multimember STV reform would achieve its full representational potential if it is paired with the urgent need to lift the arbitrary cap on the size of the House. For context, the U.S. House has a relatively small number of representatives, Germany’s Bundestag has over 700 representatives, and the U.K.’s House of Commons has 650. To truly remedy malapportionment and misrepresentation, the size of the House needs to grow by increasing the number of representatives from each state and making proportional representation mathematically possible.
What is STV?
In general, STV is a proportional, ranked voting system that minimizes the number of wasted votes in an election and elects multiple representatives from each constituency. By enabling more than a simple plurality of voters to elect a representative, STV minimizes the number of votes that are wasted either because the winner received more votes than she needed to win the election, or the loser did not reach the threshold needed to win. (If you are unfamiliar with STV, here is a great short video that walks through how STV elections work in practice.)
Under STV, a voter has one vote and is given a choice between multiple candidates. The voter then ranks her choice of candidates, ranking as many, or as few, candidates as she likes. Importantly, her lower rankings have no negative impact on her higher-ranked choices. Winners are recognized when candidates reach a threshold quota, which is set proportional to the number of seats available in the constituency (also known as the district magnitude). If a candidate has more votes than she needs to be elected, she wins a seat and her surplus votes are reassigned to her voters’ next ranked choice. If no candidate reaches the required threshold, the candidate with the fewest votes is excluded, and her votes are transferred to her voters’ next choice. This process continues until enough candidates receive the required threshold of votes to fill all the open seats, thus preventing wasted votes. As a result, the vast majority of voters are able to elect a desired candidate into office.
While STV is a proportional voting system, measuring its proportionality is less straightforward since voters cast ballots for individual candidates rather than political parties. Therefore, rather than proportionally representing parties, STV distributes representation proportionally “in terms of whatever characteristics of candidates voters value.” STV is flexible and capable of “taking into consideration multiple layers of voter preference,” reflecting the unique sentiments of the people without reducing their political identity to a party platform. STV is especially suitable for use in House elections because it facilitates the body’s populist function by allowing for a proportional expression of genuine voter sentiment—after all, the House is the Peoples’ House, not the Parties’ House.
STV itself is not a singular electoral system, but rather a family of closely related systems that are implemented in a wide variety of ways throughout the world. Currently, Ireland, Australia, Malta, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, and Scotland use forms of STV in all or a subset of their national and local elections. Historically, several local governments in the United States adopted STV at various times throughout the past century. In the United States, political reformers used STV to successfully combat the control of party machines over local elections and gain fair minority representation. Today, the use of STV in the United States is limited, in part, because of its historic success in proportionally representing minorities. STV is only currently used in Cambridge, Massachusetts. More recently, U.S. localities have started to adopt ranked choice voting, which is similar to STV, in that voters rank their choices, but for single-member districts. While a step in the right direction, ranked choice voting lacks the benefits of proportional representation, since only one person can win the single seat in the constituency.
STV’s Advantages Over the Current System
While SMDP does produce identifiable, local representatives, it also manufactures majorities, encourages gerrymandering, discourages voter turnout, creates high levels of wasted votes, and denies fair representation to third parties, racial minorities, and women. Beyond providing more proportional representation, STV is also capable of addressing many of these other issues.
SMDP elections often result in a significant number of wasted votes. When voters see their votes wasted, many voters make a perfectly rational decision not to vote because they are “consistently denied the right to elect a candidate of their choosing.” In contrast, STV allows the vast majority of voters to elect the candidate of their choosing. STV also makes it impossible for voters to do anything but express their sincere preferences by neutralizing any potential spoiler effects and eliminating the impacts of tactical voting (voting against a candidate rather than for a candidate for strategic reasons). As a result, STV “imbues its victors with a legitimacy that does not merely indicate the greatest support, but also the lowest disapproval.”
Relatedly, preferential systems such as STV “promote a greater sense of fairness about election outcomes among citizens, which in turn is a major component of the public’s satisfaction with the democratic system.” Voter participation increases in proportional systems generally, in part because the majority of voters are routinely rewarded for their participation with representatives who represent them. And as a result of STV’s flexibility to focus on issues and candidates, rather than just party, “minority or issue-specific groups, have heightened incentives to increase ‘get-out-the vote efforts’—a phenomenon itself likely raising voter turnout.”
In contrast, voter engagement in the SMDP is often limited because outcomes “are already decided long before even the primaries take place.” This is partly because SMDP “can lead to a party winning a majority of seats . . . while winning a minority of votes.” This distorting characteristic of SDMP creates incentives to enhance polarization by rewarding gerrymandering—and, more concerningly—self-sorting. Self-sorting means that, even without gerrymandering, “[t]he states, counties and even neighborhoods from which districts are drawn are less competitive than they used to be because voters are sorting themselves.”
STV does not create such barriers to the breakdown of societal and cultural divides. First, STV ends gerrymandering. In districts with five or more seats, gerrymandering is nearly impossible. And in districts with at least three seats, it remains difficult. This comes down to district magnitude, or the number of seats in each district. In SMDP, districts can be “packed or cracked” to give one party a maximum number of districts that contain just enough party supporters to ensure that party is elected. This works because, in SMDP districts, one party can make up 49 percent of the electorate and receive no representation at all. In multimember STV districts, the results are proportional no matter where the lines are drawn. It becomes impossible to pack or crack a district, because whether a voting bloc is diluted across several districts, or concentrated in one, it will receive proportional, local representation.
Second, STV permits the expression of novel, cross-cutting policy choices and political beliefs by focusing elections on the candidates and away from overinclusive party buckets. This provides STV voters with the opportunity to build coalitions for themselves that can be expressed in their choice of candidate rankings, without the involvement of party leaders.
Lastly, STV removes one of the incentives for self-sorting by providing representation to minority groups that would otherwise be incapable of winning any representation in an SMDP election. As a result, people with different worldviews and political ideologies can remain close to one another geographically without sacrificing their law-making capacity. It is important that our political system not disempower voters in diverse communities because meaningful intergroup contact in the right setting—like that offered by a shared community—goes a long way to bridging divides, promoting respect, and reducing bias and prejudice among social groups.
This flags a third major issue with SMDP—its underrepresentation of women and minorities. Underrepresentation of minorities has been such a persistent issue in U.S. elections that “majority-minority districts” have become a way of manipulating the electoral system in an attempt to disguise this fundamental flaw. Not only is the effectiveness of this solution questionable, but majority-minority districts do nothing to provide representation for more dispersed minorities. STV, on the other hand, increases minority representation in political bodies regardless of geographic location.
In New Zealand, where STV was first used in local elections in 2004, the system increased Māori representation on local boards to locally proportionate levels. STV in the United States had similar results. In the 1950s, STV made it possible for Black Americans in Cincinnati, Hamilton, and Toledo, Ohio to win elections to city office for the first time. Once these cities abandoned STV, however, Black Americans “again found it almost impossible to get elected.” Also in Ohio, Irish Catholics, “a residentially dispersed minority,” and Polish Americans were able to elect their first city council representatives under STV. In fact, STV’s success in increasing minority representation was a central reason for its abandonment in the United States—with opponents using the system’s propensity to accurately represent both ideological and racial minorities as a reason to reject it.
Furthermore, by maximizing proportional representation, STV also creates the “incentive for cross-racial and other coalitions while minimizing the problems of strategic voting and intra-group competition.” No voter needs to decide whether a minority group identity is her only, or even primary, identity. In fact, a voter is able to support an outsider candidate from another party, race, gender, ethnicity, etc., “without sacrificing support for the voter’s ‘insider’ candidates.” As a result, STV simultaneously provides opportunities for descriptive “authentic” representation, without limiting or essentializing minority experiences or identities.
Finally, a two-party duopoly is the inevitable result of SMDP, whether or not such a result accurately represents the preference of the people. STV has been implemented successfully in both multi-party and two-party systems. But as a candidate-centered system, it tends “to take power away from party leaders and give it to voters.”
STV, unlike SMDP, has no inherent party preference. Instead, it has the capacity to reflect voter preference for party proliferation rather than shutting other parties out by design. Professor Steven Mulroy, a former attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division summed up STV’s advantage perfectly: “The will of the people should not be thwarted to promote an artificial stasis: If greater ideological diversity is a truer reflection of the electorate’s overall preferences, then such diversity ought to be allowed to exist.”
In countries where the electorate is supportive of its two-party system, such as in Malta, the two parties remain dominant. In countries like Ireland, that have more intra-party voting, parties are able to proliferate. U.S. localities that adopted STV in the twentieth century also reflected this pattern. In Ohio, STV was implemented in a political space that remained consistently dominated by two parties. In New York City, by contrast, “an intensely cosmopolitan area with a variety of political cultures, STV nurtured a vigorous multi-party system.”
STV also encourages coalition-building around issues that are important to voters and strengthens the performances of candidates who build such coalitions. This is partly because candidates are incentivized by STV to seek voters who would serve as second- or third-preference voters, since candidates who are elected often require vote transfers to meet the winning threshold. This reality also encourages cross-party coalitions and compromise positions that reflect genuine voter sentiment. And even if pre-election coalition signals sent by parties do not materialize, post-election coalitions can still be signaled by voters via their vote transfers.
Not only does STV hold significant advantages over SMDP, but by eliminating costly primaries and incentivizing coalitions, it can also lower the barrier of entry into national politics. This characteristic gives STV the potential to foster novel ideas, while serving as a testing ground for new coalitions that could spread to other spheres of American politics. The broader participation brought about by these reforms may have spillover effects for other elections, both local and national. Most importantly, people may no longer accept a lack of representation at any level of politics, and similar reforms could lead to more democratization throughout the American political system.
Critiques of STV
Opponents argue that STV and other proportional systems would be too complex to implement. While it is true that SMDP is simple to explain, the extent to which it can be manipulated through gerrymandering, voter suppression, primary systems, and the like belies its simplicity. The elimination of primary elections under STV alone would serve to streamline the costs and complications of U.S. elections and could potentially increase voter participation in the electoral system.
Furthermore, assertions that STV is too complex tend to confuse the relatively straightforward voter experience with the more complicated counting methodology. While the equations for counting under STV are more complex than simply tabulating a plurality, results are just as traceable. In fact, vote transfers can be calculated and allocated by a computer in a “matter of seconds.” From the point of view of the voter, there is “nothing inherently complicated about STV.” The voter experience in STV elections and the data on invalidated ballots proves that voters are capable of understanding it.
Unlike Party List proportional representation systems where voters vote for a party, not a representative, there is no evidence that STV increases fractionalization or the prominence of fringe candidates. Some countries using Party List systems have imposed a minimum threshold (often 5 percent) to eliminate the risk of fringe or extremist parties. STV thresholds are determined by the number of seats per district (also known as district magnitude). If all U.S. districts are between three and nine in magnitude, the threshold for winning a seat would never dip below approximately 11 percent—in populous, dense districts—and 26-33 percent in rural, disperse districts. In fact, as outlined above, STV may actually improve relations between different groups and reduce polarization by giving everyone a seat at the table, “thus making their interests more real and understandable.”
While no electoral system is a panacea, STV is the most suitable system for House elections because it provides the best opportunity for a proportional expression of true voter sentiment while maintaining a system of local representatives. STV is capable of much less interference with voter preference than is achievable under the current SMDP system. Its capacity to reflect genuine voter sentiment, broaden proportional representation, improve diversity in representation, positively impact turnout and voter satisfaction, and promote novel, flexible coalitions make it a much more appropriate system for a society as diverse as the United States.
All We Need is Legislation
It is technically possible for Congress to pass legislation to increase the size of the House and mandate the use of STV for House elections. In fact, the size of the House was itself arbitrarily capped by legislation fueled by xenophobia and racism in 1929. And a bill proposing STV for House elections was introduced in Congress in 2017.
But reform will be difficult. Members of the House benefit from the current system, and the continuing concentration of legislative power in the hands of political parties will make it harder to enact structural changes that would do anything but preserve their power. There will also be a learning curve for voters that would take place over a few elections. This learning curve could be used as an excuse to revoke reforms. However, none of this justifies a failure to address the decline in the quality of congressional representation.
As we look for ways to improve our democracy, we cannot overlook the House. The House was always meant to be a populist institution, a compromise achieved by the Framers to justify the establishment of the undemocratic Senate. It is one of the best paths to genuine democracy we currently have. But for it to be effective, both malapportionment and misrepresentation need to be addressed. Changes in our country’s demographics cannot be used as an excuse for less democracy.
Bryce Rosenbower: Berkeley Law 2021, a Publishing Editor of the California Law Review.
Recommended Citation: Bryce Rosenbower, The Single Transferable Vote and Proportional Representation in the Peoples’ House, Calif. L. Rev. Online (Oct. 2020), https://www.californialawreview.org/single-transferable-vote-proportional-representation.