How the Democrats could win the popular vote but not control of the House

Doug Cowan
Author:
Doug Cowan

Posted on the 6th November 2018

Brenda from Bristol famously cried “not another one!” at the news that we were to hold an election in 2017, just two years since the last one.

Let’s hope she doesn’t plan to move to America anytime soon: the House of Representatives has been elected every two years for the last 230 years.

Elections to the House of Representatives are in a cycle with the Senate and the Presidency. Every two years every member of the House of Representatives are elected for a fresh two-year term, and a third of Senators are elected for six-year terms. Oh, and there’s a Presidential election every four years.

Brenda’s hypothetical American cousins have a similar attitude to her: turnout in elections half-way through a President’s term are shockingly low. The highest it has reached in the last 100 years was 48.7% in 1966, but in recent years it has sat around the 40% mark, dropping to 37% last time.

Thankfully, turnout is supposed to be up for this election. But no matter how many people vote, elections in America aren’t a straight race.

Something isn’t right

The one vital detail missing from news reports on the midterms is that the Democrats don’t just need more people to vote for them. According to FiveThirtyEight projections, they need to beat the Republicans by nearly six percentage points.

Or to put it another way, to get 50% of the House of Representatives, the Democrats need to get 56% of the popular vote.

This isn’t new. In 2012 more people voted for the Democrats than Republicans, but the latter won a majority of the House.

While the Electoral College (used for electing the President) was designed to artificially boost the power of voters in less populated states, the House of Representatives is supposed to represent the nation equally.

So where has this partisan bias come from?

Just like in the UK, Americans use the winner-takes-all First Past the Post system to elect the House of Representatives. And just like in every country it is used, the system leads to worrying levels of ‘electoral bias’. Click To Tweet

Winning big and losing small

The ‘bias’ is the difference in seats between the two main parties if they both got the same number of votes. The perfect natural experiment was 1996, when both parties got the same share of the vote, to one decimal place… and Republicans won 19 more seats.

In the UK, the electoral bias changes over time as third parties grow and shrink. But in America, where third parties are almost non-existent, the bias has been consistently pro-Republican for many years.

This is because Republican voters live in locations that help their party’s electoral chances. With First Past the Post, you only need to come first by one vote to be elected. Republicans are spread around the country in such a way that their candidates can take advantage of this by winning narrowly, and losing badly.

Remember: if you beat your opponent by one vote or 100,000 votes, the result is the same: you still only get one seat.

The system means there’s no difference between a candidate who wins with 51% and one who wins with 80%. You could say it penalises popularity. Why bother winning big?

While some people may vote out of a sense of civic duty, so for them their vote was still important, in terms of who ends up sitting in the House of Representatives, all these votes are wasted.

It’s the geography, stupid

There’s another factor at play: people enjoy living near people like themselves. But in particular, Democrats tend to live in areas with a higher density of other Democrats. Since that increases the chances of Democrats ‘winning big’ in individual seats with no proportional increase in representation, in effect they self-sort in a way that helps the Republicans.

Politicians in America take advantage of this feature of the voting system, by designing constituencies to ensure they have an even more ‘efficient’ voter base. Unlike in the UK, where independent boundary commissions design the seats, in many States, politicians can choose their voters by carefully drawing constituency borders around them.

America is fairly unique in that while the Federal government tells each state how many Representatives the state gets, it is the State that draws the constituency boundaries, decides the franchise and picks the electoral system for Federal elections.

Another way

Voters aren’t going to move house to solve this problem, so the solution is to change the electoral system to one that isn’t based on constituencies that elect just one member. With a preferential system like the Single Transferable Vote, all the votes that would have been wasted under First Past the Post can be transferred to help other people get elected.

Maine is part of the way there, as this midterm they will elect their Representatives and Senators with ‘Instant Run-off Voting’ for the first time. This isn’t a form of proportional representation, but will at least ensure that the winner gets over 50% of the vote.

Interest is growing in electoral reform all the time, and as the old saying goes, ‘As Maine goes, so goes the nation’. Depending on what happens these midterms, the rest of the US may be very keen to follow suit.

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