A group of relative newcomers on Capitol Hill is seeking to end the creative gerrymandering that gives colleagues years of job security in favor of larger congressional districts with multiple members in each one.
Leading the effort is Rep. Don Beyer, a northern Virginia Democrat who admits his Fair Representation Act won't be an easy sell and may not pass for decades. But Beyer hopes the bill will start a conversation that ends with elimination of most single-member congressional districts.
"It's a long-term play; it's a paradigm shift," Beyer told the Washington Examiner. "We have a highly gerrymandered system, so that maybe 30 seats out of 435 are actually competitive."
Beyer's proposed fix, unveiled in July, would not change the number of seats in the House of Representatives and would affect only the 43 states with more than one congressional district. Nothing would change in one-representative states such as Alaska, Delaware, and North Dakota.
However, in states with two to five congressional districts, all House seats would become at-large, meaning members of Congress would be chosen in statewide votes. The states essentially have one district.
For example, all residents in four-district Nevada would vote for statewide representatives, rather than the four individual-member constituencies that are there now.
In states with more than five seats in the House, independent commissions would create large districts of roughly equal size to each other for three to five members.
In New York, for example, which now has 27 individual congressional districts, an independent commission would likely create nine three-member districts.
The idea is to diminish partisan advantages by making districts larger and, therefore, more competitive.
In all states with more than one seat, the proposed legislation — in a second foundational change — would seek to improve political representation by requiring ranked-choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting.
In instant-runoff voting, voters rank their prefered candidates, and victors must pass a certain threshold.
If winners aren't clear based on first-rank picks, there's a second round of vote-counting, where the last-place candidate is eliminated, and their votes are distributed to second choices. The process continues until winners are decided.
This means that in multi-member districts, the votes of less popular candidates would go to second-choice or third-choice picks until all seats are filled by candidates crossing the precalculated threshold.
For example, in four-seat Nevada, Republicans and Democrats, along with third parties, would each nominate four congressional candidates. Voters can choose among parties.
A voter who picks a Green Party candidate as their first choice and a Democrat as their second likely would have their first choice eliminated, but their vote — rather than being wasted — would be reallocated to the Democrat. If that Democrat is among the least-popular candidates, a third-choice candidate would get the resident's vote, and so forth.
Candidates with the broadest appeal would win, in theory, and it would become more likely that political parties currently gerrymandered out of being competitive would have a shot at winning at least some seats.
On paper, the new system would allow more Republicans to be elected in heavily Democratic states such as Massachusetts and for more Democrats in deep-red states such as Kansas. The chance of third-party candidates winning House seats also would improve.
Initial co-sponsors included freshmen Democratic Reps. Ro Khanna of California and Jamie Raskin of Maryland. Rep. Jim Duncan, a Tennessee Democrat elected to 14 terms, later signed on.
Beyer believes the number of non-white and female House members would expand significantly as diversity becomes a sought-after goal in large, competitive seats, even with the elimination of majority African-American districts.
"My first worry was, ‘What is the Congressional Black Caucus going to think of this?' And happily, James Clyburn is one of the great champions," he said. "The importance of the black vote will actually be greater as they are spread among larger districts." A spokesman for Clyburn did not respond to requests for comment.
"I look across the aisle, and it's all middle aged white men because it's easy to do one at a time," Beyer said.
New York University political scientist Steve Brams said he's unaware of hard evidence that ranked voting would increase diversity, however. Brams advocates a different reform called approval voting, where voters indicate candidates they approve of rather than ranking choices.
"The competition over different voting reforms in the U.S. will surely slow down their adoption here," Brams said.
Although not a well-known historical fact, multi-member congressional districts existed in the past if states wanted them, although never before with instant-runoff voting.
Despite potential concern, Beyer said prominent veteran lawmakers are unlikely to be negatively affected, and that "a Frank Wolf or a Jim Moran would likely be first or second choice for a lot of people" in an enlarged district.
Rob Richie, executive director of the pro-instant-runoff group FairVote, said it may be a tough climb, but that history may offer hope for even a long-shot reform. "We know that there's a whole history of incumbents changing rules on how they were elected," he said.
Beyer, meanwhile, is looking to build support, particularly among Republicans. "I don't want it to be a Democratic initiative; Republicans have to understand this is good for Republican representation in places they have been shut out."
The bill stirs conversation as the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether partisan gerrymandering can be unconstitutional, a more immediate threat to the status quo.
"Overcoming gerrymandering, unless [there is] a good Supreme Court ruling, is going to be the work of the century," Beyer said.