Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Ranked-Choice Voting & Independent Redistricting

By Christopher Zieja

In our current political system, gerrymandering empowers elected officials to choose their voters rather than have voters choose the politicians. The result? Partisanship and polarization. Centrists are stymied and politics less civil due to an overwhelming number of non-competitive legislative districts. As a result, politicians have little incentive to forge thoughtful, practical solutions. Political polarization threatens the United States and does not represent the will of its people.

There are, however, solutions. In its most recent mayoral contest, Minneapolis implemented Ranked-Choice Voting. Voters ranked their choices for Mayor on the same ballot – so if your first choice did not garner enough votes to advance in the contest, then your second choice would count, and so on. In the 33rd round, Mayor Betsy Hodges emerged victorious with 48.95 percent of the ranked vote. Throughout the mayoral campaign, she and other candidates did not merely ask for a vote, but instead to be as high as possible on a given voter’s list of choices. In developing a more civil approach to politics, ranked-choice voting is a way we can focus on building collaborative governance and attracting more women to run for elected office.

To eliminate gerrymandering, reform advocates propose using Independent Redistricting Commissions, which would give a group – a Commission – of citizens the power to draw district boundaries; the group would be selected to reflect the varied cultures and communities of a given state. It is imperative that politicians not draw the boundaries of the districts that they represent because it’s up to voters to choose those who represent them rather than the other way around.

While the legislative district boundaries drawn by Independent Redistricting Commissions would be drawn based on objective criteria like geographic features and compactness, a Commission alone does not solve the two structural problems inherent within the existing single-member-district system. First, the system relies on First-Past-the-Post voting, which means that whichever candidate gets the highest percentage of the vote wins – whether that’s 50.1 percent or a plurality of just 13 percent – none of the other 49.9 percent or 87 percent earn representation. All voters’ voices matter, yet neither the current system nor Independent Redistricting Commissions by themselves allot citizens the representation that they deserve.

The second structural problem inherent to the single-member-district system is its inability to effectively offer minorities the varied representation that they are by law granted. Racial minorities, overwhelmingly Democratic, are naturally concentrated into particular neighborhoods, making it easy for them to be drawn into a small number districts, but preventing them from being reflected in legislative bodies in the proportion that they constitute of the overall population. This phenomenon, called unintentional gerrymandering, leads to some overwhelmingly Democratic districts, and many more marginally Republican ones. While racial minorities as a whole prefer Democrats, that doesn’t suggest that all African-Americans or Hispanic and Latino Americans share the same policy preferences, for after all city living and suburban residence demand different priorities. It is critical that to offer minorities the representation that they deserve, we move beyond an Independent Redistricting Commission quick-fix.

An adequate system integrates Independent Redistricting Commissions and two other elements: multi-member districts and ranked-choice voting. Let’s take Virginia as an example: Currently, the Commonwealth has 40 single-member State Senate districts. In this structure, we elect liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans with few moderates because our elected officials have no incentive to devote attention beyond primary elections in safe districts. Any effective solution must address this issue. If Virginia were drawn into eight Senate districts, each sending five Senators to Richmond, then the spectrum of political views in a given district would be reflected: the election wouldn’t be about getting more votes than anybody else, but about building a coalition of supporters of x percent of voters within a multi-member district. This would justly give the opportunity for the ideological left, center, and right, of each part of Virginia to gain representation, rather than just the ideological extremes as is the case now. Furthermore, gerrymandering would be curbed as multi-member districts would be drawn by an Independent Redistricting Commission.

Some are skeptical, insisting that a redistricting system relying on multi-member districts, ranked-choice voting, and independent commissions is unconstitutional. But nothing is unconstitutional about it. To get our problems solved in Richmond and Washington, we know that our legislators need to collaborate. A multi-member-district, ranked-choice-voting system is integral to stopping the polarization and having voters select politicians rather than having politicians select their voters.