Read: The people v. the U.S. Senate
When Beyer introduced the FRA last summer, joined by his co-sponsors Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland and Representative Ro Khanna of California, he took the first step in a process that even the bill’s proponents admit is likely to be a long one. Both Beyer and Richie think the FRA is likely to become law—but they put a likely date of passage one to two decades down the line. That might come closer if feelings of disenfranchisement or frustration with unfairness in the current system continue to build, though. “If the Democrats win by a big popular-vote margin and still don’t have control of the House, it’ll spur a lot of reforms on the Democratic side,” Beyer says.
At the state and local levels, ranked-choice voting is making some inroads. Cities like Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, are on board. And, in what the FairVote legal and policy director Drew Penrose describes as a “sea change,” Maine has instituted ranked-choice voting for its elections this year, in which voters will order each candidate by preference rather than voting for only one choice. (Unlike Beyer’s plan, Maine does not use multimember districts.)
Pushing state-level efforts further will be key in building support for the measure, Penrose says. Experts like the University of Missouri political science professor Peverill Squire also note that state-level changes to the electoral system have a more immediate chance of becoming reality than federal-level shifts.
Beyer believes that proportional representation—the idea that political parties deserve legislative representation proportional to their share of the vote—would incentivize bipartisanship and reduce polarization. Rather than face primary challenges from more extreme members of their own parties, politicians would be well advised to seek out opposition votes. In a proportional, multimember district, for example, a Democrat who could win second or third preferences from Republican-leaning voters would stand a greater chance of being elected than one who drove off moderates by taking extreme stances. The system could also lead to a third-party presence in the House, raising the prospect of coalitions and a new sort of dealmaking.
So how would it work in practice?
Take North Carolina. FairVote would split the state into three districts, two with five House members, one with three. They estimate the map would elect five Democrats and five Republicans, with each district also having a swing seat that would likely vary election to election.
Read: North Carolina’s gerrymandering drama is only going to get worse
And that’s just if no additional parties grew or emerged. There would be no real need for Democrats to choose between a Clinton wing and a Sanders wing—they could vote for both in ranked order. A Trump critic like the outgoing Representative Mark Sanford of South Carolina or Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona could also create a viable new center-right movement. Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at New America, has argued that moderates and conservatives who are increasingly shut out of the Republican Party ought to support proportional systems since they could potentially give rise to a new party that places a greater emphasis on non-Trumpian Republican values.