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The Fair Representation Act was recently introduced by House Member Don Bayer. The main changes that I've read about were that it would introduce instant-runoff style ranked choice voting and that it would put districting in the hands of an independent commission that would create much larger districts with multiple representatives versus single representative districts that currently exist.

There are certainly flaws with instant-runoff, detailed in this answer. But it sounds better than the current system. That answer only addresses a single winner per district.

I'm curious to know how having super districts would affect election outcomes. I would also like to know how these super districts would be free of gerrymandering. Or would the larger district requirement just make it more difficult to gerrymander effectively?

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I would also like to know how these super districts would be free of gerrymandering. Or would the larger district requirement just make it more difficult to gerrymander effectively?

If you get right down to the marrow of it, gerrymandering is essentially a sophisticated means of exploiting rounding errors in a crude historical method of determining a political party's support via single member districts.

For example, suppose that voters are evenly split between two political parties, but the nine equal population single member districts are drawn so that the favored party wins by just 5 percentage points in eight districts, while the disfavored party wins by 40 percentage points in another district, you've converted a 50-50 division of the population vote into 8 seats for the favored party (which gets a 0.45 seat rounding error in its favor in the eight districts it wins and a 0.1 seat rounding error against it in the one district it loses), and 1 seat for the disfavored party (which gets a 0.45 seat rounding error against it in the eight district it loses but only a 0.1 seat rounding error in its favor in the one district it wins).

The more representatives you have in any given district, the smaller the rounding error, and hence, the less room there is for gerrymandering.

Continuing our example, suppose that all nine seats are contested in a single district and seats are awarded to each party proportionately. Each party will immediately win 4 seats leaving just 1 seat out of 9 that will be close with a total rounding error of just 0.5 seats in favor of one party and against the other. So, a 3.5 seat combined rounding error in the first scenario is reduced to a 0.5 seat combined rounding error in the second scenario.

The logic involved in these examples can apply generally, and the more seats there are per district, the less combined rounding error is created and so the less room there is for gerrymandering.

Also, since the rounding errors in each district are smaller, the models a person engaged in gerrymandering needs to use to intentionally create rounding errors that are in favor of the preferred party must be both much more accurate and much more sophisticated to work properly. The odds that someone trying to gerrymander multi-member districts will screw it up and end up hurting (or at least not helping) the party that they are trying to favor when they draw district lines is much greater.

There are some other key implications of multi-member districts in addition to their impact on gerrymandering as well, however. Many political scientists would consider these to be downsides to some extent, although whether each implication is a good thing or a bad thing is to some extent a matter of opinion.

  1. It diffuses the question of who is really responsible for a particular set of constituents, shifting incentives from constituent service to advancing a party position.

  2. It makes it much easier to elect representatives from small third parties. This makes it much more likely that no one party will get a legislative majority which could make it harder for anyone to enact legislation. It also makes it much more likely that extremists who lack majority support in any one location can still put elected officials into office. Making it easier for diffuse minority extremist parties to elect a representative can advance the cause of extremism generally by giving these extremist factions a high profile voice and a means to organize themselves around their elected officials. In contrast, single member districts systemically underrepresent diffuse, politically extreme ideological factions which are minorities almost everywhere which tends to moderate the political system as a whole (something that instant runoff voting also does). Historically, this logic first became obvious in the case of the Weimar Republic in Germany, although many subsequent examples have shown that the total number of parties with elected officials and their ideological breadth is tightly related to the number of officials elected per district. Germany imposed a 5% threshold on its election process primarily to put a barrier in the way of efforts for small minority neo-Nazi parties to elect legislators.

  3. The more candidates a voter has to consider, the less likely a voter is to make an informed decision about any of those candidates and the harder it is for the media to communicate information about the people who represent the voter to the voter so that the voter may make referendum style decisions to vote out a bum who is underperforming or acting contrary to the voter's wishes. It is harder to research a couple dozen candidates in a given election (which would be typical in a nine seat election since there would be viable third party candidates as well as a candidate for each seat from each of two major parties) than it is to research two of them as you would in a single member district with the two party system that single member districts strongly favor. Likewise, it is harder to follow what nine people who represent your district are doing than it is to follow what one person who represents your district is doing.

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    Your point (2.) is a bit complicated just to list as simply a downside (it's also brought up as one of the strengths of proportional representation). – origimbo Jun 30 '17 at 20:09
  • @origimbo I have reworded the post to address this issue. – ohwilleke Jun 30 '17 at 20:13
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    Game-like illustration of gerrymandering: polytrope.com/district – endolith Jul 1 '17 at 2:51
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    Also important to note re gerrymandering is that (assuming that we were aiming for 5 members per district wherever possible, which is not an unreasonable number) 22 states have 5 or fewer Representatives, so would become "at-large" districts with no gerrymandering possible (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_congressional_apportionment ) – owjburnham Jul 2 '17 at 9:34
  • At-large districts are worst form of gerrymandering unless accompanied by some form of proportional representation in that at-large district. They guarantee that the party with the most votes in the state get all of the seats. – ohwilleke Jul 3 '17 at 1:37
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STV vs. IRV

The main changes that I've read about were that it would introduce instant-runoff style ranked choice voting and that it would put districting in the hands of an independent commission that would create much larger districts with multiple representatives versus single representative districts that currently exist.

In a multiple representation district, the voting method is called Single Transferable Vote (STV) rather than Instant-Runoff Voting (IRV). It's also noteworthy that voting can be STV in multiple ways, including Condorcet-compliant versions.

Redistricting

The best part of the proposed Fair Representation Act is that it would radically reduce redistricting angst. In many states, there would be no redistricting, because there would only be one district. And because each district in a multiple district state would have multiple representatives, people could choose for whom to vote. Don't like the traditional Republican who represented your original district? Vote for the minority or Sanders candidate instead. If there are enough of you across the district, you can get your representative.

It doesn't entirely eliminate redistricting like statewide districts do, except where it converts to statewide districts, like Rhode Island and Connecticut. What it does do is make redistricting less impactful. Even if you pack the districts with one party or dilute one party across multiple districts, having multiple representatives per district means that it doesn't matter.

An example. In Iowa, there are four congressional districts. If you shifted 28,000 Democrats (net) from IA-2 to IA-4, all four would have been Republican after 2016. Or if you shifted a similar amount of Democrats from IA-2 to IA-3 in 2012, three out of four would have been Democratic. But if all four are chosen in an STV system, the most likely result would be two and two. Perhaps in an extreme wave year, three to one (as it is now after 2016).

Roughly 775,000 voters picked the Republican and 675,000 voted for Democrats. Assuming that the Republican voters would vote for all four Republicans and the Democrats would vote for the four Democrats, this would give two Republicans and two Democrats.

The reason that this works is that it allows voters to choose how they group. Voters can group geographically, like in the current system, voting for the hometown candidate. Or voters can group ideologically or ethnically. Under the current system, politicians choose how voters are grouped. In this system, voters would choose for themselves.

Radicals vs. Moderates

The other answer asserts that this will help elect small party candidates and radicals. I don't know that either are true. First, five-seat districts wouldn't be enough to elect any of the third parties. They get 1-3% of the vote, not the 15-30% it would take to win a seat. Second, this underestimates the ability of the current system to elect radicals.

Now, when a moderate runs against a more partisan candidate, the more partisan candidate frequently wins. Eric Cantor, John Kasich, Tim Holden, and Joe Lieberman all lost partisan races to more radical candidates who then went on to win the general election. Now, it's true that these more radical candidates would still have a constituency. But when voting in lists, so do the moderates. Because moderate voters can get their choice. The Democrats who would prefer John Kasich to Donald Trump or Eric Cantor to David Brat. Or the Republicans who would prefer Tim Holden or Joe Lieberman to their opponents.

Under the current system, such candidates don't even make it to the general election, even though a majority who will vote in the election would prefer them to one or the other candidate.

As the electorate becomes increasingly polarized, we need to do something to allow at least some moderate swing voters in to vote on legislation. Otherwise Congress is grinding to a halt. Republicans can't agree on increased taxes and Democrats can't agree on reduced spending. Because the partisans are taking over, there is no middle ground left for compromise.

It's also not entirely true that third parties oppose compromise. If they did somehow get through this system (and it's possible that their vote share would swell under the new system), they do have some room for agreement with the main parties. Libertarians could team with Republicans on taxes and spending or team with Democrats on marijuana legalization. Greens are less bipartisan but have overlap with the Democrats.

Monoculture

Currently, almost every Republican is from a suburban or rural district. Almost every Democrat is from an urban district. What about urban Republicans or rural Democrats? They have no representation for their views. This makes it even harder to compromise, as House Democrats have no knowledge of issues affecting rural white folk and Republicans have no knowledge of urban voters.

This is because Republicans in urban areas have no input into candidates in their areas. The Democrat always wins, no matter who the Republican choice is. The other way around for rural Democrats. This system would change that. A four-member district means that even someone only representing 25% of the voters will have a seat. The party that represent 75% of the voters will have three seats.

Not perfect

Overall, I would prefer no districts below the state level. That would allow for true third-party candidates in the larger states like California, Texas, Florida, and New York. This proposal leaves the two-party duopoly intact, although it allows for the possibility of a real third-party to develop. Under current voting patterns, Democrats and Republicans would win all of the seats. But it would be possible for a party like the Bull Moose or United We Stand parties to develop and win some seats. If neither side holds a majority, then Republicans and Democrats would have to learn to work with other parties to pass legislation.

Third parties change the dynamic as well. Negative advertising doesn't work as well. Negative advertising tends to hurt the advertiser as well. It's just that it hurts the target more. In a two candidate election, negative advertising against your single opponent means that you do better in comparison. In a three-way race, it may mean that your other opponent picks up votes from both your leading opponent and you.

It also makes it less clear who your opponent actually is. Is it someone from the other party? Or one of the others from your own party? More importantly, there is more room to compete for the middle.

I would prefer a Condorcet-compliant method like Schulze-STV to reduce tactical voting. This proposal uses traditional STV rules. But just having multiple winners per district reduces the impact of tactical voting. And collecting the ranked votes makes it possible to score them however.

I'm not crazy about "independent" commissions selecting the districts. In practice, the independent commissions still produce slanted districts. This goes back again to why I would prefer statewide districts. Then voters choose how to group rather than someone else choosing groupings for voters.

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