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US House Proportional Representation: How Would It Look?

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US House Proportional Representation

What would the the shape of Congress look like if a US House proportional representation system was used?

Plenty of people might acknowledge that gerrymandering is a problem, depending on what state you’re in and depending on what party you support. This website takes the stance that gerrymandering is, in fact, a problem and an affront to both good governance and fairness. Every state should draw fair lines, but some don’t, and sadly, some are not interested in doing so. Some in the major parties talk a good game about wanting “fair maps,” but only if the other party is drawing them. This is why we set out to draw our own lines for 2022 based on geographical balance.

What can be done about it? One thing would be federally mandating so-called fair maps. Another solution would be moving to a proportional representation system, in which district lines no longer matter. In order to see if such a thing would be feasible, we would first need to see how it would work, and how the results would look. There are two different ways that a proportional representation system could manifest itself: national proportional representation, and proportional representation by state.

As we will see, however, it does not have to be as cut and dry as straight-up proportional election with no elected district members.

Basics of Applying US House Proportional Representation

In order to qualify for seats in Congress, there would have to be a minimum threshold of votes received. Many countries with full or partial proportional representation systems on a national scale have one of these. This means if you want to win seats, you have to get a specific minimum percentage of the vote to do it. Also, small parties should not expect to be rewarded with House of Representatives seats by getting half of a percent of the national vote.

In some cases, it is upwards of five percent of the vote in order to qualify for seats. In the United States, one could perhaps get away with two or three. Would the major parties like that? Probably not. For the purposes of this exercise, we will use three percent as the threshold. Should a party get there, they will start at 13 seats.

If, however, seats are divided proportionally at a state level, the threshold will be highly variable.

National US House Proportional Representation

On a national proportional representation level, each party seeking US House seats would need to submit a list of candidates for election. It would need to be arranged in order of who gets into the House first. For example, as the Speaker and de facto Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi would ostensibly be first on the Democratic list. Kevin McCarthy, likewise, would be the first on the GOP list, making it a virtual certainty that he is elected. On the other end, if you’re 400th on the Democratic list, the odds of you being elected are very slim.

US House Proportional Representation - national based on 2020

The net result would have been slightly more favorable to the Democrats than the 2020 House races were, as Democrats took 222 seats and the Republicans 213.

This would have to come with some rules, as smaller states can be ignored by this model. One such rule would be that each state would have to have at least one member elected to serve. If the Democrats won 225 seats, not all could be from New York, California, and Illinois, nor could the Republicans go too heavily on Texas and Florida. An example of how this may work: suppose the Republicans are entitled to 200 seats, and they’ve finished first in North Dakota. The GOP doesn’t have a North Dakota candidate in their top 200 seats on their list. The top 199 Republicans get elected to the House, and the North Dakota candidate is selected.

In general, the state-by-state makeup of the House should reflect the populations of those states. For example, there should be 28 representatives from Florida and 15 from Ohio. This would be harder to execute on a national scale.

If using the 2016 presidential election results as the example, that would result in a third party, the Libertarians, getting seats. Why did we choose this one? To illustrate what it would be like if a minor party did get into the US House of Representatives in their own right. Even three percent of the national vote could create a situation where the small third party holds the balance of power.

Proportional Representation - national based on 2016

Proportional Representation by State

If this were done on a state level, however, it would ensure that every state got representation, which would be difficult to arrange with the national proportional model. This is more like how it is done in Sweden, with members elected proportionally by constituency to ensure a more fair representation of the population.

If proportional representation was done on a state level as opposed to a national level, the threshold to qualify for seats would probably vary by state. For example, with California and their 52 seats in the 2022 midterm elections, five percent of the vote would easily qualify a minor party for representation. However, what happens right up the coast in Oregon, a state that will have six seats? Five percent of the statewide vote is equal to 0.3 seats, so the threshold there would need to be higher. Ten percent is better, but still perhaps not enough.

For the purposes of this exercise, we will say that the threshold for winning a seat in any multi-seat state is getting a percentage of the vote equal to 0.75 seats. This is how that math works out (some figures may be rounded):

  • 2 seats: 37.5%
  • 3 seats: 25%
  • 4 seats: 18.75%
  • 5 seats: 15%
  • 6 seats: 12.5%
  • 7 seats: 10.71%
  • 8 seats: 9.375%
  • 9 seats: 8.33%
  • 10 seats: 7.5%
  • 11 seats: 6.82%
  • 12 seats: 6.25%
  • 13 seats: 5.77%
  • 14 seats: 5.36%
  • 15 seats: 5%
  • 17 seats: 4.41%
  • 26 seats: 2.88%
  • 28 seats: 2.68%
  • 38 seats: 1.97%
  • 52 seats: 1.44%

For example, in a state with four seats in the US House, a party would need to win at least 18.75% of the vote in order to qualify for seats. We’ll simplify matters for the two biggest states, California and Texas, and call two percent the absolute minimum threshold a state can have.

Let’s now see how that would look in a few states. We will use the 2016 presidential results as our base of votes to illustrate the point, since that was the best year for third parties in recent times, to show what, if anything, this could mean for the minor political players.

Proportional Representation - Arizona based on 2016

In Arizona with its 9 seats, even a year in which the Libertarians got a noticeable chunk of the vote still was not enough to get it any seats. There are too few seats in Arizona for it to happen. The Republicans and Democrats were the two that qualified, a story you will see repeated across the country. We will, however, tell you a state where based on these rules, they WOULD get over the threshold, and that’s Texas.

Proportional Representation - Texas based on 2016

Aside from a flare-up of minor parties – which admittedly could become more of a thing in the future if a party needs to get a certain percentage of the vote rather than having to win outright – the real benefit of a system like this would be the end of gerrymandering. District lines we see in the heavy gerrymander states like Illinois and Ohio would no longer be a problem. Each state would assign representatives according to the share of the vote. One downside is that depending on how parties arrange their lists of representatives to be elected, some regions of a state may be underrepresented or unrepresented. We will get into a possible solution to this in a moment.

Let’s look at both Illinois and Ohio under this model to see how proportional representation would change the dynamic.

Proportional Representation - Illinois based on 2016

The Libertarians just missed the threshold to qualify for a seat, coming up about six-tenths of a point short.

Proportional Representation - Ohio based on 2016

Like with Illinois in a proportional system, the result Ohio would generate is a far cry from what the reality will look like in a gerrymandered map. US House proportional representation creates a partisan balance that state legislators in these states will not.

Is this the only way it can be done? Hardly.

What About Mixed-Member Proportional?

A mixed-member proportional (MMP) system like they have in Germany and New Zealand would solve the issue of certain areas being underrepresented or unrepresented. This establishes that there would be a district vote for every American, regardless of where they live, so that everyone has a local (or relatively local) member of the House of Representatives. There would probably have to be a lot fewer than 435 districts that elect members nationwide, because the rest of the seats would be used for the proportional “list” vote.

Voters would cast two distinct votes: one district vote for their local congressperson, much like they do today, and one “list” vote for a party at large.

List members would be elected on a nationwide basis and would have no specific district that they represent. Under the MMP system, a system like the Sainte-Laguë method can be used to calculate the number of list seats to which a party is entitled. It may not look how you might expect.

With MMP, the percentage of the list vote you get is the be-all, end-all. The percentage your party gets there is the percentage of the seats it will have at the end of the election, (mostly) regardless of the district vote. An independent winning one or two districts would throw this off slightly.

The example below demonstrates how an MMP election might work. Stage 1 in the figure below is if Americans voted in 235 Congressional districts representing every part of the country. Stage 2 is the second vote, the “list” vote, where Americans vote for a party in general rather than a specific candidate.

Proportional Representation - MMP example

In this example, the Democrats did very well in the 235 single-member Congressional districts around the country. However, they only got 50.2% of the vote, so they will get 50.2% of the seats when the dust settles – that’s 218 out of 435. Because they overachieved in the districts and the Republicans underachieved relative to their vote percentage, the list vote will provide a counterweight to even the seat totals out to where they “should” be. This is why the Republicans did much better in the list seat totals, because it’s helping them to make up seats to which they are entitled based on their proportion of the vote.

Had the district seat results been closer to 50-50, the Democrats would have won more list seats. This neutralizes gerrymandering because if one party wins far more district seats but does not or barely wins the popular vote, the end result will reflect the latter, NOT the former.

Bottom Line on US House Proportional Representation

This is an interesting topic to consider, but US House proportional representation as a replacement for the system of electing single-member districts likely is not happening any time soon, if ever. The legislative will would have to exist in order to enact such a system, overturning federal laws which have been in place for decades which mandates that each state establish single-member districts.

One thing which operates in the favor of moving to a proportional representation system is that if it were done at a state level, a constitutional amendment would not be required. If it were done at the national level and even with the MMP system, it potentially would, since the Constitution says that each state shall be apportioned a certain number of seats for choosing all members of the House.

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