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Multi-Member Districts: Just a Thing of the Past?

Given that at least a third of Americans identify strongly with neither major party, it seems anomalous that the two major parties boast all but two of the 535 members of Congress, 49 of 50 state governors, 99% of the nearly 7,400 state legislators nationwide and every American president for more than a century-and-a-half. Many third-party supporters are convinced that Democrats and Republicans at the state and national level collude to restrict third-party ballot access and make fundraising more difficult for third parties and their candidates.

Regardless of other ways the major parties reinforce their electoral duopoly, their real baked-in advantage is purely structural; namely, the near-universal use on the national level and widespread use on the state level of single-member districts with plurality rule. With the exception of Georgia and Louisiana, which use run-off elections for U.S. House and Senate seats, and Maine and Nebraska, which use the congressional district rule for allocation of all but two of their presidential electors, general elections for Congress and the presidency are winner-take-all, plurality-rule contests. As Maurice Duverger predicted long ago, systems dominated by single-member districts, plurality-rule elections should naturally gravitate into two-party systems.

Is it time to scale back the use of single-member districts for the U.S. House and state legislatures? Maybe, but probably not. As a thought experiment, however, let’s consider what good or bad, if anything, might come from such reforms.

Multi-member districts, past and present

In the United States, multiple-member districts (MMDs), or statewide at-large U.S. House districts, are either no longer legal or quickly disappearing as an electoral phenomenon where still permissible (except, by default, in states with only one federal representative).

District magnitude in the election of U.S. House members has an especially curious history. Before being outlawed by the Apportionment Act of 1842, multiple-member districts were common in U.S. House elections; at one point, states with a combined 31% of all U.S. House seats featured MMDs. Carnegie Mellon political scientist Stephen Calabrese argues that the preference for multiple-member districts in the early 19th century was driven largely by the desire of dominant state parties to effectively translate majority support into control of their state’s entire House delegation, and that this preference was especially notable in small states that wanted a unified partisan congressional delegation in both the House and Senate.

According to FairVote’s Tory Mast, after 1842 and as a result of sometimes conflicting and confusing apportionment acts, a few states continued to use statewide, at-large multiple-member districts while others featured one at-large, single-member House district to select one House member statewide while carving out the remaining seats into single-member districts within the state. At the highwater mark in the 88th Congress (1962-63), a number of states — including Alabama, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio and Texas — elected a total of 22 of the 435 House members from multiple-member or at-large single-member districts.

Finally, in 1967 Congress passed the Uniform Congressional District Act, which remains in force today and mandates the use of discrete, single-member districts for all states with two or more seats, exempting only Hawaii and New Mexico. Yet by the time the law passed only those two states, each with just two House seats, were still using at-large elections statewide to elect their House members anyway. The reason most states had already abandoned MMDs is because they tended to marginalize the states’ minority parties and reduce the ability of racial minorities to win House seats.

On the state level, within broad federal voting rights boundaries the states retain authority to create multiple-member districts, but their use has diminished rapidly in the past half-century. According to Ballotpedia, in the 1960s multiple-member districts were used by a majority of states in at least one chamber, and nearly half of all state legislators nationwide were elected from MMDs. Today, the number of states using MMDs for state legislative elections has declined to just 10, and most of those use them partially. Only two states — Vermont and West Virginia — use MMDs to elect legislators to both chambers, and of those that use MMDs solely in their lower chambers only four such states (Arizona, New Jersey, South Dakota and Washington) elect all their lower-house legislators from multiple-member districts. “[T]he trend in recent decades away from multi-member seats has been a major, if largely unacknowledged, change in the nature of American political representation. It has taken place largely because of federal protections for minority voters,” writes Stateline’s Josh Goodman. “But even in states without many racial and ethnic minorities, such as West Virginia and Vermont, single-memberism is taking hold now. Both those states have proposals under consideration that would end multi-member districts in the states’ lower houses.”

Maryland is among that rare subset of states that was or is exceptional on both the national and state level. In the middle of the 20th century, while still permissible to do so, Maryland elected one of its House seats statewide at-large, but the remaining (six, later seven) members of its delegation from exclusive, single-members districts carved out within the state. On the state level, Maryland still uses multiple-member districts to elect about a third of its members to the state’s lower chamber, the House of Delegates. Does the Old Line State provide any useful lessons?

Prior to 2002, Maryland’s eight-member U.S. House delegation was split, with four Democrats and four Republicans, a situation that didn’t accurately reflect the state’s blue hue. But beginning with the 2002 and later 2012 elections, respectively, Democratic governors Parris Glendening and Martin O’Malley, with the help of lopsided Democratic majorities in both state legislative chambers, created new congressional maps more favorable to their party. Thanks to a very partisan-gerrymandered map — especially in and around Baltimore City and Baltimore County — the Democrats now control seven of the delegation’s eight seats, which surely over-represents the Democrats’ strength, even for this very blue state. Given that Maryland hasn’t had a Republican U.S. senator since 1986, were it legal to elect House members from at-large statewide districts, Democrats might be able to draw maps that help the party capture all eight House seats. With the present 7-1 tilt, however, there’s not much room for Democrats to further exploit the situation.

As for its state districts, Maryland elects three house members and one senator from each of 47 legislative districts. Most of the 141 House members are elected at-large, three per district. But over the past five decades the Democrat-dominated legislature has increasingly broken up legislative districts into either three single-member districts, or one two-member and one single-member district, facilitating the capture of isolated Democratic seats in Republican-leaning districts. (In one instance, the carving of these single-member districts was court-ordered to elect a non-white legislator from the Eastern Shore.) State Democrats exploit district magnitude to bolster their House majority — or maybe they don’t, given that they hold basically the same share of state’s gerrymandered Senate seats.

The unusual case of Maryland is the exception that proves the rule. And that rule is this: What really matters is the gerrymandering of map lines, not the number of legislators elected per district. Shrewd and self-serving partisanship by Democrats and Republicans in the respective states they control bears most on redistricting outcomes.

Could multi-member districts make a comeback?

From a legal standpoint, partisanship may have motivated the initial push toward universalizing single-member districts for U.S. House races, but racial considerations have since cemented that conversion. Indeed, had states continued to use at-large statewide or multiple-member districts, there almost certainly would be far fewer non-white U.S. House members today; to recognize the difference, one need only compare the much lower share of African-American, Asian or Hispanic U.S. senators. The same effect also applies to non-white state legislator share, as Tyson King-Meadows and I demonstrate in our book on black state legislators. The strongest argument for greater use of multiple-member districts is that they tend to produce more female legislators, a measure on which the United States House presently ranks 74th globally — tied with Turkmenistan. But even women’s groups do not seem to be actively agitating for multiple-member district reforms.

Politically, of course, the re-emergence of multiple-member districts on the federal level is highly unlikely. Congress would first have to repeal or amend the 1967 law. Then, individual states would have to utilize their re-established authority to create MMDs to elect some portion of or their entire U.S. House delegations. This option would be moot for the seven least-populated states that presently qualify for just one, at-large House seat. The five states with only two House seats — Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island — would probably be disinclined to use MMDs, because by definition the only available permutation would the at-large election of two members statewide, obviating districts altogether. (Hawaii opts not to re-employ their use despite retaining its exemption from the 1967 law; and given its use of the congressional district method for assigning electors, Maine almost certainly would opt against a two-member statewide House district.) Finally, there are at least two dozen states with significant minority populations that would risk Voting Rights Act or other legal challenges were they to employ MMDs in any form that prevented the election of a reasonable number of racial minorities to the House or otherwise diminished the voting power of non-white voters.

The bottom line: Single-member districts are here to stay for U.S. House elections and, given the movement toward eliminating them on the state level, not likely to experience a revival in state legislatures any time soon. The real problem of political manipulation of districting today is the maps, not the magnitude.

Thomas F. Schaller is a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the author of Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South and national political columnist for the Baltimore Sun.