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Virginia clarifies the case against winner-take-all democracy

It’s 2018. We can do better than picking names out of a bowl.

Tie In Election For Virginia House Seat Decided By Draw From Bowl Win McNamee/Getty Images

Thursday, in the state of Virginia, majority control of the House of Delegates went to Republicans, after a piece of paper with the name of a Republican candidate in a tied election was randomly selected from a bowl.

If this sounds like an absurd way to decide control of a state legislature, it’s because it is.

It’s also a clarifying example of the absurdities of the American winner-take-all two-party electoral system, rooted in the single-member, plurality-winner district.

In particular, the Virginia House of Delegates election clarifies three particular flaws: 1) the randomness of electoral outcomes, 2) the arbitrary consequences of this randomness, and 3) the potential for widespread gerrymandering.

But before we get to the flaws, let’s take a quick recap of what happened.

Back in November, Virginia held statewide elections. Virginians elected Democrat Ralph Northam as governor by a sizable majority, 54 percent to 45 percent. They also voted in 100 elections for the House of Delegates, each held in a separate district.

In one of those districts, the 94th District, the vote was really, really close — close enough to trigger a recount. After the recount, Democrat Shelly Simonds was up by one vote over incumbent Republican David Yancey. This was big news, because it meant that Democrats and Republicans would each win 50 seats in the state House.

But then Yancey’s team successfully got one extra ballot counted in his favor. This tied the race at 11,608 to 11,608. Apparently, this left picking names out of a bowl as the only way left to decide which party would get full control of the state legislature. Yancey’s name came out of the bowl. Now Republicans have a 51-49 seat majority in the state House of Delegates. And with a similarly close two-seat (21-19) majority in the state Senate as well, Republicans will have total control over the state legislature.

The randomness of electoral outcomes

In Democracy for Realists, political scientists Chris Achen and Larry Bartels conclude, “Election outcomes turn out to be largely random events from the viewpoint of democratic theory.”

Theory, meet reality.

The basic theory goes something like this: In close elections, a bunch of random forces effectively determine the outcome. Think of the 2016 presidential election, and all the random events that happened in the last week of the election (most notably the Comey letter). Then imagine how the election might have played out differently.

Now think about all the other things that affect voting at the margins: Weather. The local college sports teams’ performance the previous weekend. Random economic fluctuations. In a close election, these things can decide the outcome. So much for the will of the people — we might as well be picking victors of close elections out of a bowl.

As Jonathan Bernstein recently put it:

It’s a fallacy to believe that “what the people want” is equivalent to “what a majority wants” — let alone to “how a majority votes,” given how hard it is to interpret voters’ choices as indicating a preference for specific policies. This is most apparent in very close elections, in which trivial errors tabulating or even casting votes, or minor fluctuations in exactly which voters happened to show up at the polls, change the results.

The arbitrary consequences of this randomness

Because these elections are held in single-member plurality districts, we have a two-party system. (Single-member districts are hostile terrain for third parties, since in such electoral systems, votes for third parties are effectively wasted votes. See Duverger’s law.)

As a result, after any given election, one party almost always wins a majority of seats in a legislature, which gives them total control of that legislature.

The arbitrary consequences of this randomness is that, as David Roberts put it succinctly in a tweet, “Virginia probably won’t join a regional cap&trade system or extend Medicaid to 400K people, because of ... a bowl.”

So this randomness has real consequences. Or, if you believe the Comey letter sank Hillary Clinton, and was essentially a random event, this randomness has real consequences.

The problem of gerrymandering

Of course, the only reason control of the Virginia House of Delegates election came down to a bowl game was because Republicans had used their previous control over the districting process to gerrymander themselves into a significant advantage. If votes translated into legislative seats proportionately in the 2017 election, Democrats would have won a solid majority in the House of Delegates.

But as gerrymandering expert and law professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos noted about the 2017 Virginia election:

To secure (roughly) half of the House seats … Democrats had to earn well over 50% of the statewide House vote. This was Democrats’ best showing in more than 30 years. Had Republicans done as well, they would have won far more than 50 seats: close to 70, in fact.

Gerrymandering is largely a US phenomenon. There is a simple reason for this: We’re the only country that uses single-member districts but doesn’t use independent districting commissions to draw them.

Single-member districts are uniquely prone to gerrymandering because they provide so many possibilities for drawing boundaries. Gerrymandering isn’t a problem in most advanced democracies, because most democracies have large, multi-member districts that are both harder and less consequential to redraw for partisan gain.

There is an alternative

We don’t have to use single-member, plurality-winner elections. We could use proportional voting with multi-member districts, like most other advanced democracies.

With proportional voting, there would be no gerrymandering.

Moreover, because proportional voting systems inevitably create multi-party systems, it’s rare for any single party to win a majority. Instead, parties form governing coalitions.

It’s certainly still possible in proportional voting systems for a single vote to decide which party gets the most seats in the legislature. But the arbitrary consequences of such randomness are not quite so large as they are in our two-party system. More likely, they would lead to a small shift in the governing coalition, not a dramatic swing in policy.

Certainly, proportional voting systems don’t solve the deeper problems of political irrationality that Achen and Bartels so dutifully detail in Democracy for Realists. But proportional systems do a better job of managing them. At the very least, such systems don’t make the mistake of assuming there is such a thing as a coherent mandate majority, and conferring absolute power based on it.

It’s 2018. We can do better than assigning winner-take-all legislative majorities by picking names out of bowls.

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