Fixing the frustration of never being able to elect a congressman

Why not give both of them something to do after the election? (Image from NBC's Parks and Recreation)

Slate’s Reihan Salam has a piece on “The Biggest Problem in American Politics,” which is that he’s a conservative in New York City and is thus always on the losing side in congressional elections. But he’s not speaking only for the “Reaganites” in NYC: “the problem we face — that our political influence doesn’t match our numbers — is one faced by many groups, including liberals in conservative parts of the country, and members of racial, ethnic, and other minorities who want and consistently fail to get their fair share of political power.”

Salam blames “our reliance on single-member districts to elect legislators,” something that has led to fewer and fewer competitive races as more districts become lopsidedly Democratic or Republican. (You can blame this on gerrymandering or the inefficient distribution of Democratic votes, or you can get frustrated by people putting too much weight on one or the other.)

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As an alternative, he suggests multi-member districts: “the basic idea is that if there were a three-seat multi-member district in Texas in which 68 percent of the vote went to Republican candidates and 32 percent went to Democratic candidates, […] it would send two Republicans and one Democrat to Congress.”

This plan would not necessarily give a voice to a Republican in Manhattan, which includes at least part of four congressional districts. In 2012, one didn’t have a GOP candidate at all; in the others, Republican candidates got 19 percent, 19 percent, and 6 percent. But in most of suburban America, it would take some very creative gerrymandering to avoid three-member suburban districts with a 2-to-1 split.

And Salam thinks the more complicated politics of multi-member districts would both allow for new viewpoints in Congress and lead to more cross-party cooperation. (“[The] ever-present need for coalition-building creates a powerful incentive to treat your political rivals with respect, even when you disagree with them.”)

It’s not going to happen, because members of Congress aren’t likely to think much of sharing the work and the credit for getting federal funds to their districts (there have been legendary feuds between pairs of U.S. senators from the same state, even when they’re of the same party), and because our electoral system is so rusted over that people don’t dare touch it for fear it will fall apart. But Salam may have a point about the frustration of spending decades, even a lifetime, on the losing side of every congressional race you ever vote in. Does the experience lead to apathy and withdrawal from politics? Do decades of futile voting have a corrosive effect that leads to disillusionment with the American political system — or a willingness to embrace more extremist positions and conspiracy theories?

A more modest alternative to multi-member districts is a kind of shadow Congress, consisting of the losers (or second-place finishers) in each district. The losing Republican candidates in Manhattan and Democratic candidates in rural Texas would not get to vote on legislation, but they would get other perks of office, such as getting to ask questions in committee hearings and use the TV studios reserved for members. At first, this would result in a lot of fringe candidates getting to be pretend congressmen, but over time more credible citizens would run in party primaries in ideologically hostile districts, knowing they can have a long-term role in public debate even if they don’t win the general election. And voters like Salam, the Reaganite in Manhattan, would at least get to amplify their views.

If Congress doesn’t adopt this idea (and it’s unlikely they will), the political parties could do so. Losing candidates, or perhaps candidates who meet a threshold of 25 or 30 percent, could become delegates to party conventions or study groups. The Democratic and Republican parties could promote them as opposition voices in local and national media.

A shadow Congress wouldn’t give every voter an equal chance of influencing legislation, but it could provide more incentive to cast a ballot even when your neighbors never agree with you.

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