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Would More Representative Voting Favor the Democrats? Not Quite

Summary:
Before, during, and after the election, many of the Democrats in my Facebook feed keep complaining that the current districting system is unfair and leads to gerrymandering and overrepresentation of Republicans in Congress. They also complain that, even independently of that, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans in the general population isn’t reflected in the ratio of Democrats to Republican in Congress. Response: Well, sort of… I mean, gerrymandering is morally suspicious and no doubt affects representation in unfair or self-interested ways. But here’s the deeper problem. The political science literature is rather clear that first-past-the-post voting is not a good system if you care about having real representation in the legislature. If you really care about proportional

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Before, during, and after the election, many of the Democrats in my Facebook feed keep complaining that the current districting system is unfair and leads to gerrymandering and overrepresentation of Republicans in Congress. They also complain that, even independently of that, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans in the general population isn’t reflected in the ratio of Democrats to Republican in Congress.

Response: Well, sort of… I mean, gerrymandering is morally suspicious and no doubt affects representation in unfair or self-interested ways.

But here’s the deeper problem. The political science literature is rather clear that first-past-the-post voting is not a good system if you care about having real representation in the legislature.

If you really care about proportional representation, you’d favor some sort of proportional representation system over first-past-the-post + districting. Or you might favor a more complicated voting system than that. The alternatives to first-past-the-post are also flawed and imperfect, but they’re generally superior.

But if we did replace first-past-the-post with some sort of proportional voting system, we’d most likely end not with more Democrats in Congress, but fewer. Why? Because a proportional voting system would lead to there being a larger number of viable parties (where a viable party = a party that is able to get a seat in Congress). The two-party system is an artifact of our voting system. That’s political science 101. We all know that.

So, it’s not quite right that a properly representative voting system would lead to a Democratic majority. It would instead introduce multiple other viable parties, who would chip away at the Democratic-Republican duopoly. The Democrats and Republicans know this, which is why we will never get such a system.

Further, even under a proportional voting system, you might end up with situations in which the governing coalition doesn’t reflect the party preferences of the voting population. Imagine 40% vote Christian Democrat, 12% vote Liberal, 20% vote Social Democrat, and the remainder vote for various other parties. The Christian Democrats might choose to make a coalition with the Liberals rather than the Social Democrats.

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Author: Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan (Ph.D., 2007, University of Arizona) is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics.

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