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Is It Time to Reform Our Winner-Take-All Election System?

Despite often winning a majority of votes, the Democratic Party is at an electoral disadvantage in legislatures that appears to be worsening. Author Jonathan Rodden explains the current problem and why national reform is unlikely.

The 2022 primaries are over, and now all eyes turn towards a general election that is widely expected to result in a drubbing for Democrats.

The issues are legion. The president’s party usually loses seats in midterm elections, Biden’s approval rating are notably low, and a confluence of bizarre and painful economic circumstances are making voters unhappy. But below all these 2022 specific circumstances, another Democratic disadvantage lurks.

Stanford University’s Jonathan Rodden’s 2019 book Why Cities Lose gave an accessible explanation of why U.S. Congressional and legislative races often give Republicans an edge in putting together a majority. A leading U.S. expert on political geography and legislative districting, he showed why the winner-take-all legislative elections found in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada put left-of- center parties at a disadvantage.
Jonathan Rodden
Jonathan Rodden
(Stanford University)
Since then, Rodden has worked on a number of redistricting proposals around the country, as maps for the coming decade are put into place. He talked with Governing about the historic roots of this left-wing legislative disadvantage, the policy implications of winner-take-all districting, and whether the pandemic has altered these dynamics in a meaningful way.

Governing: Your book argues that democracies in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and the United States are systemically loaded against left-of-center parties. It’s not just because of American quirks like the electoral college and the Senate’s privileging of land over people. How are legislative and Congressional elections biased towards the Republican Party, as it is currently constituted?

Rodden: This is something that’s really been happening since the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of left parties and labor parties with really concentrated support in cities. Once that becomes the case, those parties end up with a real asymmetry in the distribution of their support across electoral districts. There’s a heavy concentration of support for parties of the left in urban districts, which they win by really large, super majorities. But there aren’t districts in rural areas that the right wins by such large majorities [so there are more districts overall where they are favored to win]. The left ends up with a bad support distribution across districts, making it hard for them to transform their votes into seats even when they win a majority of votes.

Governing: This was true in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, when left-of-center voters were likely to be factory and mining workers grouped in settlements around industrial hubs. That’s no longer a huge constituency of the left and its one that has actually drifted rightward. So why is the left-wing vote still clustered?

Rodden: These labor parties, social democratic parties, and eventually the Democrats, when they first became urban parties, the main political cleavage was economic. A lot changed in later decades, when social issues were introduced, things like environmental protection, immigration, and, in the U.S., the racial cleavage. More recently, debates about globalization and free trade have developed.

Parties on the left have taken on new meaning and new issues over time. But in each case, they ended up taking on the platform that was supported by urban voters and have become increasingly urban over time as those new issues have been added. So even as the class cleavage has faded, and income has become less predictive of voting behavior, this urban-rural cleavage has become stronger, especially in the U.S.

Governing: There are expectations, like Vermont or the predominantly Black rural areas of the deep South.

Rodden: In the U.S. case, there’s this very powerful racial cleavage. In parts of the South where there is a rural black population, and also on Native American reservations — these are places where we see strong support for Democrats in rural areas.

Then there’s not just Vermont but maybe parts of Colorado and other places where the population is largely made up of urban transplants, people who’ve moved from cities to ski towns or other vacation destinations. If you look at the county-level data, the places that make Vermont Democratic are the places that have gained a lot of population which was not born in Vermont. It’s a state that has a lot of in-migration from cities. That’s an interesting case of how this phenomenon could play out as people start to leave cities and move to other places. It’s a little too early to say, but there is movement of that kind in some settings. It probably matters a bit.

Governing: The Vermont situation seems unique in that it started happening a long time ago, when the Bernie Sanders-types were moving there from New York and did actually change the political demographics of the state from rock-ribbed Republican to more socialist. That was easier, because there were so few people to begin with.

Rodden: Yeah, it’s a small state so we really notice, but there are other little areas like that. One that comes to my mind is the area around Lake Tahoe, Calif., where there has been in-migration of Bay Area remote workers during the pandemic. That population is really growing, and the place is transforming politically. It’s an area where the state legislative districts or the congressional district were traditionally Republican. But if that balance was eventually tipped in favor of all these urbanites moving, that would make a difference. It’s not Vermont, it’s not an entire state. But you can imagine there are congressional districts on the margin, where this sort of movement might matter.

Governing: During the pandemic, newer Sunbelt metropolitan areas like Phoenix have continued attracting domestic migration and often from more Democratic areas. But these cities don’t have the same kind of concentrated urban core as older areas. Voters of both parties tend to be scattered around a lot more. How is this playing out in states like Texas or Florida, which still seem quite conservative at the state-level?

Rodden: Most of the places that are experiencing in-migration are becoming more Democratic and places that are experiencing out-migration are becoming more Republican. The places in those states that are gaining population are sprawling suburban areas. The question is what are the implications of these recent movements for this latest round of redistricting?

It’s made the job of Republican district drawing a little bit harder in some settings, just because you have to be a bit more risk averse given that these vast suburban and exurban areas are really growing. Imagine you’re [a GOP policymaker] drawing districts in 2021 and thinking about what politics will look like eight years from now when the population changes are so quick and most of the movement is in favor of the Democratic Party.

Governing: But it’s not a sea change?

Rodden: It’s the age-old question of at what point does Texas experience enough in-migration that it flips? There’s also this countervailing trend, where all these places gaining population are moving towards Democrats, but in the 2020 election some of the Hispanic parts of Texas moved in the opposite direction. There was a countervailing movement toward the Republicans elsewhere and rural areas continue to become more Republican. There are a lot of different things happening at the same time.

In Texas, it hasn’t led to statewide elections moving towards Democrats. We’re not there yet. But in 2020, Georgia did get to that point, which was surprising. That was really not driven by exceptionally high turnout among urban minorities, but by suburbia and really large increases in the population in the vast suburban area around Atlanta.

Governing: The last time we talked, just before the 2020 election, you mentioned that the winner-take-all disadvantage for left-of-center parties was subsumed during wave elections. In 2018, for example, Republicans lost support in the suburbs, so the Democratic dependence on urban voters was less of a handicap. Same with Labour during the Tony Blair years. But this can just be a period of hibernation, and the handicap can return again [as it did for Labour]. What have we learned in the 2020 race, the 2021 governors’ race, about suburban support for Democrats? 

Rodden: The idea that the suburbs have permanently realigned for the Democrats, that’s just not the case at all. One of the things we learned in the 2020 election is that even though split-ticket voting is much less prevalent than it used to be, there was enough of it to make a real difference. In some of those House races there were voters who clearly were turning against Trump, but still elected Republican members of Congress. That was a form of split-ticket voting that re-emerged and depending on who’s on the ballot in two years we could see more of that.

Governing: How can this change? You’re essentially talking about winner-take-all systems that democracies broadly descended from the British Empire have. How did other, non-Anglo Western European countries handle these inequalities?

Rodden: These kinds of asymmetries in the transformation of votes to seats started to become really common early in the 20th century and it led parties of the left to push hard for electoral reform. Around World War I there was a period where electoral reform swept across a lot of democratic European countries. It was around the same time that the franchise expanded, and soldiers were coming back from World War I.

There was a period of reform when most of Europe adopted some form of proportional representation, where you have much larger districts and the representation of the parties in the legislature is driven by their vote share. [So a conservative-leaning district might produce two right-wing seats with 60 percent of the vote and one left-wing seat with 40 percent.] They ended up with the multi-party systems we know today in Europe.

In New Zealand, electoral reform was more recent. It happened in the 1990s after the Labour Party had two elections in a row where it won the most votes but didn’t win the most seats and didn’t form a government. There was a lot of interest in electoral reform at that moment, although it’s a bit of a complicated story about how it actually came to pass. Often neither of the major parties is very interested in electoral reform, including the party of the left. Big left parties worry that if they switch to a system of proportional representation they will lose support to other smaller parties, like a further left socialist party or a party of the environmental movement.

But the stars aligned properly in New Zealand in the 1990s to create a process that led to electoral reform. They ended up adopting a proportional system much like the one used in Germany. That just ends this whole problem, once you have some form of proportional representation, no one cares much anymore how the districts are drawn. This unfairness in votes to seats vanishes.

Governing: This seems like an issue where it is possible to diagnose the problem, but almost impossible to imagine it ever being reformed in America.

Rodden: In the U.S. context, if we’re being realistic, a moment like what they had in New Zealand does not seem on the horizon. Reformers have focused more on the state level and trying to do something gradual or have been focusing on city elections and introducing smaller reforms to try to build up the taste for reform. We’ve had things like rank choice voting in Maine, and a few other places. These ideas are starting to take hold a bit, but I agree that nationwide proportional representation is not something I would put money on happening in my lifetime.

Governing: What are the policy implications of all this? In America, Republicans are increasingly skeptical of investment in mass transit. In Europe, by contrast, right wing parties are perhaps a bit less supportive of public transportation than their rivals, but they also have a lot of urban voters who depend on it. 

Rodden: Support for public transit really is something that is driven by cities. Much of the focus of rail transit is connecting cities; there’s commuter rail within cities, subway systems, so much of transit is an urban-focused investment. The question is how do we get a political coalition that can come together and sustain big investments in transit?

We see that happening in lots of other countries, but we don’t see it happening in the U.S. This urban-rural polarization and the nature of representation that we’ve been discussing is a big part of the story. We’re at a point now where it just doesn’t make sense for Republican politicians to even compete in urban places, so they don’t really try. There’s no thought that urban votes matter when Republicans are crafting their platforms and trying to get elected.

In a place like Germany, it’s true that there’s a correlation between population density and voting and that urban voters are more likely to vote for the left. But it’s not nearly as polarized. There’s still plenty of Christian Democrats living in relatively dense places. The right-of-center Christian Democratic Party has not given up on winning urban votes. To win in a proportional system, a vote is valuable no matter where it is. Christian Democrats do have to worry about urban voters. The Christian Democrats in Germany, or really any of the other mainstream parties of the right in Europe, would never completely reject the notion of investing in public transit.

These parties do try to attract votes in urban areas because some of those voters, especially relatively affluent urban voters who rely on commuter trains, are part of their electoral base. They can’t just adopt a purely rural strategy of only investing in highways and ignoring urban transit. You have a cross-party coalition in favor of transit. It might be that a party of the left wants more and the parties of the right want a little less, or they want a little different mix [of modes]. But the idea of completely rejecting the idea of any investment in transit, that is something we would not expect in a European political system.
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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