If voting leaves you feeling tired and vaguely dissatisfied, you’re not alone. Over 60% of voters aren’t happy with the two party duopoly that dominates US politics; others hate the flood of negative campaign ads or feel that politics is too big or too distant to be able to effect via the voting process.
But there is hope! This week, Paul talks to two political scientists, Lee Drutman and Daniel Bowen to talk about how ranked choice voting, multi‐member legislative districts, and packing the House of Representatives could save our democracy from its dire situation.
00:04 Paul Matzko: The final weeks before election day are always such a slog. The airwaves are flooded with negative political ads, you probably have a friend or a family member who is the kind of hyper‐partisan who decks out their entire lawn with campaign signs. And when it comes time to vote, you feel stuck either voting for a candidate you actually like but who stands zero chance of winning, or you vote for whichever of the two red or blue shaded options that seems somewhat less reprehensible than the other. Well, I guess you do get to wear a sticker for the rest of the day and feel vaguely superior to those who aren’t. You did your wearisome soul‐sucking civic duty yet again, yay.
00:47 Paul Matzko: Today on Building Tomorrow, a podcast about the way we can create a better future through tech and innovation, we’re going to ask: Does it really have to be this way? How did we get to such a sorry state in American politics? And is there anything we can do about it? After all, the ways we organize human behavior are forms of technology; just as the idea of the assembly line transformed global industry, the ways we organize our election process and government representation, it can have a transformative and salutary effect. And the good news is that there are reforms that could break the power of the two‐party duopoly, disincentivize negative campaigning, and make our politicians more accountable and closer to the electorate.
01:40 Paul Matzko: But we need to start by diagnosing our national political sickness. To that end I called up Lee Drutman, a political scientist and senior fellow at the New America think tank. Lee, thanks for joining me.
01:52 Lee Drutman: Hey, it’s a great pleasure to be with you, Paul.
01:54 Paul Matzko: Lee is also the author of a new book titled Breaking the Two‐Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multi‐party Democracy in America. I’m gonna guess that just based on that title, Doom Loop, that you’re not feeling real optimistic right now.
02:10 Lee Drutman: Yeah, it’s kind of a dead giveaway. Things are looking pretty bad here in American politics. The level of partisan hatred is at a really dangerous point, that sort of shared sense that if the other party wins, it’s gonna be somehow illegitimate. These are warning lights and alarm bells that scholars of democracy would say make it very difficult to continue this experiment in self‐government.
02:46 Paul Matzko: Another term for the extreme partisanship we see in American politics is party polarization, like how a magnet has two poles that either repel or attract a piece of metal. Most of us get sorted into either Democrats or Republicans, whether or not we really like either party, but we feel like we have to vote for our party because every election, we’re told that this is the last election, the other side wins, oh, you know, it’s the end of America as we know it. So we vote out of fear of the other guy rather than out of love for ours. So I put the question to Lee. How do we get here? So I’ll put it to you, why are we so much more polarized in our party politics today, and just so quick to reflexively vote for our tribe and equally quick to vilify the other?
03:35 Lee Drutman: Well, it’s a complicated question, that it is really the emergence of several trends that have happened over the last several decades. So if we go back to the 1960s, 1960 is a useful jumping‐off point, in which there really wasn’t a whole lot of difference between the Democratic party and the Republican party and… There was Nixon versus Kennedy, it was a very close debate. But if you go back and watch those debates, which are actually fascinating to watch in the current context, you see that they’re arguing about pretty minor points about like farm policy, there’s not a ton of disagreement between the Democratic and the Republican parties, and that’s because the parties at national level were really these loose overlapping coalitions, and the real action was with state and local parties.
04:31 Lee Drutman: And politics was mostly local, and the party system was kinda built around a particular post‐war consensus, and importantly, that consensus was about leaving issues of race and race relations largely to the states. Now, that was not sustainable for I think reasons that should be obvious, and as the federal government took on more important role in civil rights and many other cultural issues, politics became more and more national, and the parties began to take more distinct stances on these cultural and social and racial identity issues.
05:20 Lee Drutman: And so you had this kind of great sorting of American politics where liberal Republicans, largely from the north east and some of the big cities on the Coast started to become Democrats, and basically liberal Republicans kinda went extinct, I guess Susan Collins might be the last of that generation, and she may no longer be in office very soon. And the same with the conservative Democrats who used to be common in the South and rural parts of the country who had conservative cultural values though they aligned more with Democrats on economic issues. And so those were the groups that fostered broad bipartisan compromise, but also kind of muddied the national images of the party.
06:07 Lee Drutman: They also had an increasing centralization of party finances and nationalization of the elections as both parties tried to make the elections more about who is in control of Congress rather than… And being willing to work with the other party, the idea was that you wanna make sure that the other party is seen as unacceptable and your party is the only party that is the true party of America, basically, and there were a lot of incredibly close elections during this period of time. We’ve kind of gone in this era of pendulum politics, from unified government to divided government to unified government for the other party, and both sides are really trying to get this slim, elusive, narrow majority, both because they think if the others, they wanna be able to impose a very strong version of their preferred policy agenda. And perhaps more to the point, they think that if the other side gets control that that will be the end of America or the end of democracy.
07:08 Lee Drutman: So we’re in this high stakes politics over increasingly national issues that are really zero‐sum identity cultural issues. And this is a process that has really played out over the last six decades. And as I argue in my book, Breaking the Two‐Party Doom Loop, we actually are a genuine two‐party democracy for the first time in really just in the last decade, in the sense of having two truly distinct national parties. And I know a lot of folks will say, “Well, what’s this crazy guy talking about? Haven’t we always had a two‐party system?” And yes, that’s true in name, but really, until very recently, the national parties were these just catch‐all brands that didn’t really have any meaningful, any strong distinction And it was these overlapping coalitions.
08:01 Lee Drutman: So it’s really like we had a multi‐party system within the two‐party system, and it made our institutions, which demand tremendous compromise and patience and deliberation, actually work okay, not necessarily great, but okay, because basically, if you go back to Madison’s vision, it’s a vision in which there’s no dominant faction and you work out compromises that are broadly legitimate. Now, the problem with two parties is that you wind up with this very binary approach to politics, in which one side is always trying to get this majority, and also when you split people into two groups, and this is something that emerges out of many group psychology and social psychology experiments is that people start really disliking the other group. And the more you separate the groups, and we are seeing how that happens right now with one party for rural America and one party for urban cosmopolitan America, the more distant the other party seems and the higher the stakes for power, the more you get hatred.
09:15 Lee Drutman: Now, what’s interesting about these social psychology experiments is that they only work for two groups. If you add three… Break them into three or four groups, some people are allies and some people are enemies on different issues, there’s not that level of hatred, there’s not that level of animosity. Our brains are really hard‐wired for this us versus them, good versus evil, Manichaean thinking about the world. And what that does is it really over‐simplifies things and it makes it hard for us to incorporate new information that doesn’t fit neatly in that schema, which frankly, just makes us all a lot dumber. And I think one way of… An alternate way of thinking about politics that I think is not familiar to Americans in the two‐party system, but was very in tune with how Madison was thinking about it and how people in most democracies think about it, is that there is… On issues, there might be majorities. But the coalitions, there’s no permanent majority coalition. There’s just a bunch of people working out compromises on particular issues and trying to build a winning coalition that is inclusive and sustainable. It’s not somebody trying to ram down some policy in some limited window in which they have power.
10:43 Paul Matzko: This party duopoly we’ve found ourselves trapped in is incredibly durable, despite the fact that over 60% of voters wish they could vote for a viable third option. Despite our weariness, though, party affiliation is one of the stickiest identities that we have. In fact, sociologists have found that parents when asked who they would have the hardest time seeing their kids marry, don’t report a different religion or race, but someone with a different party affiliation. That’s messed up. The good news is that I have three major reforms to tell you about today, each of which could play a role in saving American democracy from its demons. The first is a better method of selecting people to represent us in legislatures. It’s called proportional representation, and it’s something that Lee has spent a lot of time thinking about.
11:36 Lee Drutman: The simple idea is that rather than having a single district that picks only one representative, you have larger districts that pick multiple representatives, or in some cases even the entire country is one electoral district, which is the case in the Netherlands, and then candidates or parties are elected in proportion to their vote share, district‐wide or country‐wide in some cases. And there are many different versions of proportional representation that vary district magnitude, vary vote formulas. The version of proportional representation that I recommend in my book, Breaking the Two‐Party Doom Loop, and many others, I think would be most appropriate for the United States, is a system that’s been used for about a hundred years in Ireland, it’s been used in Australia, it continues to be used and people like it there, is a system of ranked‐choice voting with multi‐member districts for the House.
12:44 Paul Matzko: Now, why don’t we have multi‐party politics in the US already, you might be asking. But it’s because we stuck with an outdated voting system long after other countries turned to alternative methods. What we have is called first past the post voting, where the first candidate to get a majority of the votes, or at least the sufficiently large plurality, wins all the cookies. There’s nothing proportional about the outcome at all on the district level. The person that half the voters, give or take, selects, represents 100% of the district. But having multi‐member districts allows the preferences of the entire electorate to have a clearer impact. Even political minorities get some representation and don’t have to feel as perpetually marginalized and alienated from the political process. I asked Lee for a specific example of how a multi‐member district might work.
13:37 Lee Drutman: Let’s go down to Massachusetts, which actually is voting on ranked‐choice voting. They have nine congressional districts. Massachusetts is a pretty solidly Democratic state, but maybe about a third of people in Massachusetts vote for Republicans. The Massachusetts congressional delegation is nine Democrats. Now, what about that third of people who vote for Republicans, they don’t get to elect any representative. But if you imagine you had Massachusetts, instead of these nine separate congressional districts, as one big congressional district, you’d probably have a third of the representatives would… Everybody would vote for one representative, and then they could do a ranked‐choice ballot there, and then the top nine finishers after vote transfers would go to Congress.
14:29 Lee Drutman: So what you’d probably wind up with is six Democrats and three Republicans in our current party system, but maybe you’d wind up with one Libertarian, like a Bill Weld, who could… Who got maybe like 12% of the vote state‐wide or 15% of the vote state‐wide. You’d wind up with some different types of Democrats, some moderate Democrats, some more socialist Democrats. Maybe you’d wind up with… Who knows? But you’d get more diversity. And here’s the other thing, that every voter in the state of Massachusetts would have their count. So right now, I think almost all of those districts are basically safe Democratic districts. So voters live in those districts, their votes don’t really count because they don’t… Nobody is really worried about them unless they happen to be voting in a primary, in which case then it’s a competition for who can be the most partisan Democrat, particularly a far‐left partisan Democrat.
15:38 Lee Drutman: And I just think that’s a fairer system. Everybody’s vote counts equally, voters are represented in proportion to their share of the state population, and it creates more parties and it creates more diversity of ideas. This is a pluralistic country, and Democrats and Republicans don’t have a monopoly on good ideas. And in fact, the system almost encourages them not to develop new ideas because they have to maintain this complicated coalition of all these groups in all this big tent. And the way they do that is not by really developing new policy ideas as much as bashing the other party. So it’s a system designed to make people disenchanted and disappointed right now, and it’s no wonder so many people feel that way, and our country is just really declining in so many ways.
16:37 Paul Matzko: The benefits of proportional representation go beyond breaking the two‐party duopoly. Places that have gone to multi‐member districts also tend to have less negative campaigning and more diversity in outcome.
16:51 Lee Drutman: Yeah. Well, when you’re in a proportional system, you’re just gonna wind up with more diverse candidates, more diversity of background, more diversity of ethnicity, more diversity of ideas, because you don’t have to get a plurality in a single district in order to win. It’s not… If you take libertarians or any other group that doesn’t fit in a two‐party system, they’re not concentrated in a single district, because districts’ geography is increasingly arbitrary to our political interests in the 21st century. But they’re spread out more. So the way to have representation is to have much larger districts in which you can be 15% of a much larger district, and then you can elect a candidate of choice.
17:53 Lee Drutman: And I think the other point you raised about negative campaigning is negative campaigning backfires, and we know that there’s a backfire effect, but in the two‐party system, the sense is that it’s even worse for your opponent, so it’s okay. But in a multi‐party system, you get the backfire and it’s not clear it could benefit somebody else. If you’re trying to take out one person, it’s not clear that you’re gonna get their support, especially if you’re the one doing the negative campaigning, ’cause people actually don’t like the negative campaigning all that much. So it just doesn’t work the same way. Also if you’re gonna be… If a party is gonna be in a governing coalition with another party, then, one, you don’t wanna poison the well before the election, but also if you’ve been in coalition with a different party, it’s harder to say that this party is super dangerous because, well, then, why did you work with them?
18:58 Lee Drutman: And that logic also applies to how the campaigns operate right now, which is that Democrats can’t work with Republicans, ’cause Democrats wanna be able to say that Republicans are super dangerous and have all the wrong ideas. And if a Democrat works with a Republican, that validates that Republicans might have some decent ideas because otherwise, why would you work with them, and vice versa?
19:29 Paul Matzko: Doesn’t that sound refreshing? Imagine having a system that discouraged the demonization of other political parties and encouraged consensus‐building. Our second reform idea could yield similar results, but rather than tweaking representation, it tweaks the ballot. It’s something called ranked‐choice voting. I asked Lee to explain what that is. For our listeners who aren’t already familiar with ranked‐choice voting, we’ve dropped the term a couple of times here, what is that? What does it look like when I go to the polls in November? What would a ranked‐choice ballot look like?
20:03 Lee Drutman: Well, you’re gonna see the same list of candidates that you might normally see, but rather than just picking one, you can rank those candidates in terms of preference. So what that means practically, is if you’re a libertarian, you can vote for the libertarian candidate as your first choice and then acknowledging that the libertarian candidate might not win, maybe you say, “Okay, well, who would be my second choice? Who’s my backup vote if that candidate is only gonna get 4% of the first round preferences?” And maybe it’s the Republican, maybe it’s the Democrat, maybe it’s another party.
20:41 Lee Drutman: In practicality, as ranked‐choice voting catches on, there will be more parties, ’cause the reason that a lot of third parties avoid spending money on running candidates is because they know that it’s wasted money if their candidate is not gonna win. And frankly, it’s why a lot of candidates who are ambitious don’t choose to run on third‐party labels because they know they’re not gonna win. But practically from the voter experience, it means that you’re gonna have… You’re gonna get to register your preference or rank all the candidates in order of preference, and you know that your vote will count even if your preferred candidate doesn’t do so well.
21:27 Paul Matzko: So you don’t feel like you’re… I think right now, a lot of folks, voters won’t vote for third parties because they feel like they’re throwing their vote away. And so they have to strategically out of… And often of hate and fear rather than out of any kind of actual affection for the person they vote for.
21:43 Lee Drutman: Right. So a lot of folks who are libertarians say, “Well, the true support for libertarianism would be higher if people actually could vote for a libertarian candidate without throwing their vote away.” So we would learn that if we had a form of ranked‐choice voting.
22:02 Paul Matzko: And again, it’s not just a libertarian thing, it would be true for socialist parties and so on as well, any kind of third party. So then… So you rank your preferences. You can have your third party at the top and then, okay, well, I guess once, if they’re not gonna win, probably, so my second choice is fill in the blank, Dem or Republican. What then do they do at the end of election day with those preferences?
22:31 Lee Drutman: So the candidates are eliminated from the bottom up. So you take the first round, say there’s four… Say, we’re running the 2016 presidential election as a ranked‐choice voting election. So first round Hillary… I forget the exact data, it’s like Hillary Clinton was at 48%, Trump was at 46%. Gary Johnson was at 4%, Jill Stein was at 2%. So you’d say like, alright. So Jill Stein is the last place finisher, so she’s eliminated, but her votes aren’t thrown out. They’re transferred to the second choice. So say half of her supporters. So we’re dealing with 2%. So say like 1.5% go to Hillary and 0.5 go to Gary Johnson. So now Hillary is at 49.5%. This is the simple version of ranked‐choice voting. She doesn’t have a majority yet. Then Gary Johnson’s votes are… He’s eliminated. So his supporters, say they split half between Trump and Clinton, Clinton gets over the top. She’s got more than 51%, she wins.
23:48 Lee Drutman: Now, I recognize that that’s not… We have to filter this through Electoral College. But as a simple understanding that’s how it works, is candidates are eliminated from the bottom up and their votes are redistributed to their second or in some cases third preferences, if their votes, if it’s been transferred multiple times.
24:12 Paul Matzko: But in the situation you posited in 2016, you don’t have a president who wins with 46% of the vote.
24:21 Lee Drutman: Although you’d also wanna eliminate the Electoral College to ensure that…
24:25 Paul Matzko: Yeah, that’s another wrinkle. Yeah, yeah. It’s complicated.
24:28 Lee Drutman: But in theory, yes.
24:30 Paul Matzko: Okay. Now I’m gonna make all of you insanely jealous. There is a place in the United States where ranked‐choice voting already exists on the federal level, and that glorious place is my home state, Maine. That’s right, baby. We got lighthouses, we got lobsters, and we got ranked‐choice voting. It was actually tried for the first time in 2018, when the Republican congressional candidate, a fellow named Bruce Poliquin, played partisan politics as usual, while the Democratic candidate Jared Golden, he appealed to third‐party and independent voters. He would basically go around and say, “Look, I agree with you on this and this. Could I have your second or third place vote?” And while Poliquin won on the first ballot, he got way fewer second and third place votes than Golden, giving the Democrat, Golden, the final victory. In other words, ranked‐choice voting empowered third‐party voters, punished overly negative campaigning and resulted in the win for the person most widely palatable to voters in the district. Let’s get back to Lee.
25:33 Lee Drutman: I think about the process by which we do campaigning and governing. And so what it means is that candidates are campaigning differently and they’re bargaining differently. The Republican Bruce Poliquin, who lost in the second congressional district of Maine, in many ways, it’s his own damn fault because he could have campaigned in a way that tried to build broader support. Instead here his campaign consultants ran the same divisive partisan playbook of plurality voting, and he lost and also had Susan Collins in Maine decided that she’s gonna run as an independent and benefit from ranked‐choice voting, I think she’d be in a much better position now. Instead she ran… She’s running as a Republican, and as a result, it’s very hard for her to distance herself from Trump and she’s going to lose probably as a result.
26:37 Lee Drutman: So it’s not… I tend to… As somebody who’s studied political science and public opinion, I tend to be somewhat skeptical that a lot of public preferences are stable or independent, rather than that they reflect to a large extent what media and partisan elites tell them that they should care about. And if campaigns are telling voters that they should be very afraid of the other party, and this is an incredibly high‐stakes election, that’s what voters will say, but voters have weaker preferences in terms of their own interests that are not often well reflected or translated into political parties.
27:29 Lee Drutman: And I think in a different political system, you’d see those voters, those interests better translated into political parties, ’cause there’d be more political parties to represent those interests. So I think sometimes it’s easy to think in terms of the will of the people, or Democrats as a majority or Republicans as a majority, but those are overly‐simplified crystallizations of a particular moment, and to me, the whole aspect of self‐governance and democracy is that those ideas should be fluid, and what matters is not a narrow majority or one party winning, what matters is a sort of ongoing deliberative, pluralistic process where we build a legitimate policy that reflects a broader set of compromises, in which nobody really gets their way. The system shouldn’t be working if nobody gets their preferred outcome, but the outcome kind of reflects a broader compromise position.
28:47 Paul Matzko: So if we combine ranked‐choice voting with proportional representation, we really will start to put a dent in hyper‐polarization and just the general idiocy which defines our politics today. But there’s another way that we could boost those gains. If I say in our current political context, the words “Pack the… ” And ask you to fill in the blank, you might answer, “Supreme Court.” That’s all the rage or horror at the moment, depending on your political priors, but I want to live in the world where the first thing that pops into all of our heads when we say those words is “Pack the House,” as in House of Representatives. The size of the House of Representatives used to grow constantly as the population grew. This was the norm from 1789 to the 1920s, and then we just stopped doing it. And the ever‐growing ratio of constituents to members of Congress has contributed to our political rot.
29:47 Paul Matzko: So I decided to talk with Dan Bowen, a political scientist at the College of New Jersey, who specializes in, among other things, voter behavior, congressional districting. Welcome to the show, Dan.
30:00 Dan Bowen: Thanks, Paul, I’m so glad to be here.
30:01 Paul Matzko: Now, in my notes, I titled this group of questions in the spirit of “the rent is too damn high” party, but instead it’s “Congress is too damn small.” Now, this is gonna come as a bit of a shock to folks, it’s not like there’s some huge public demand for more of what is consistently ranked as one of the least popular institutions in America. You ask man on the street, “Do you like Congress?” And there’s a few percentage points of people who will say, “Yes, Congress is great.” So we’re saying for more members of Congress. Why do you think that 435 voting members of the House of Representatives are too few?
30:37 Dan Bowen: Yeah, well, we need more politicians, right, to sell that, everybody is quick to jump on, of course. No, it’s kind of a hard sell, I can get that, but our 435 members of the US House is entirely arbitrary. That number, the US House of Representatives was never designed to be a fixed number, certainly Madison never planned it that way, and in fact argues in The Federalist Papers that the size of the House will continue to grow as the population grew. In fact, the original founding documents sort of set the expectation that we would hold a ratio of citizens to representatives constant throughout time, and we generally did this up until the early 20th century, so after Arizona and New Mexico gets added as states is the last time that we change the size of the House at 435 members.
31:42 Dan Bowen: What ends up happening is reapportionment gets too contentious as folks move out of the farms and move into the cities, and you start to get swings in political power away from rural states and into urban states and they stop passing apportionment bills. And the compromise was just reapportion the existing seats. The down side to this current plan of reapportionment is that our district sizes are growing dramatically as the population has grown in the United States.
32:16 Paul Matzko: So what are we talking about on the scale here? So what was it pre‐20th century? The ratio, what is it on average today?
32:23 Dan Bowen: Today it’s over 700,000 persons per district.
32:28 Paul Matzko: Wow.
32:30 Dan Bowen: Right? So very, very large seats. What was it back in the late 1800s, early 1900s? I don’t have the data in front of me, but somewhere, 200,000 people per district. At the founding we’re talking about 30,000 people per district. Of course, it’s difficult to say what is the exact right amount of people in a district. That’s a difficult question to answer, but I think we could make the argument that there’d be some positive consequences if we had more members in Congress and fewer citizens lumped together in each district. For example, members wouldn’t have to raise as much money, wouldn’t have to do as much fundraising because they don’t have to campaign in a large district of 700,000, 800,000 people. That’s one.
33:22 Dan Bowen: Another possibility is that there might be other types of campaigning activities that members could do. They could actually walk around neighborhoods and talk to voters, because grassroots mobilization is more effective when you have fewer people per district. Districts, because they’d be smaller, there would be a greater chance of any sort of district interests, maybe it’s the local factory or maybe it’s the higher‐ed sector and the college town community, or maybe it’s a racial or ethnic group will have a larger chance of being a majority inside of a smaller district. When we create very large districts, we end up pulling all these districts toward the mean of the country. They’re more reflective of the entire nation and less of the variety of life that is in the United States.
34:23 Paul Matzko: No. That makes sense. There has a kind of a mean… A lowest common denominator effect. So that the majority groups tend to end up being over‐representative while minority groups are under‐represented as a result.
34:37 Dan Bowen: I think this relates to political polarization as well, because what we’re doing here when we’re pulling these districts towards the mean, we’re also pulling them toward the means of the parties. So you might have moderate Republicans or moderate Democrats and moderate Democrats in the South, or moderate Republicans in the Northeast, for example, who might provide a different sort of representation of party, because their party coalitions in those areas look different. In the Northeast, maybe the Republican coalition is more secular than in the South, and maybe the Democratic coalition in a Southern congressional district is more socially conservative. Certainly, that’s probably true in majority and minority districts in the South. So if we have a smaller district, perhaps some of those differences in the party groups can actually impact voting behavior of members of Congress in a way they don’t do now, they can’t now, when they’re so large and those interesting differences get averaged across a large space.
35:53 Paul Matzko: It makes sense in a pragmatic experiential way. I think lots of our listeners who live in smaller towns, will, when they think of local government officials, they might actually have some sort of personal relationship with them, or at least have the prospect of having a personal relationship with them. You might know the mayor of your town of 50,000, 100,000 people, because at some point in time they came to a ribbon‐cutting ceremony at your business, or you just saw them at a round‐table event or whatever. You actually… You have a prospect of knowing them and feeling heard by them, whereas a Member of Congress, well, maybe it’s some big event, some rally that you went to, you might have been in the audience as you saw them up on the stage. They’re more distant.
36:45 Paul Matzko: So if they represented a smaller community, they would be a bit more closer to that scale of the town mayor in terms of your access to them. And I imagine that when they’re large and distant, when it’s large districts, and they’re often… Their district includes a dozen towns the size of your town, their headquarters isn’t even in their… Their campaign headquarters isn’t even in your town. Well, that means the people who have proximity to them are not as much the locals as, well, the lobbying by corporations and other vested interests. Is that true? Does that show up in the data that district size affects citizen access?
37:27 Dan Bowen: Yes, absolutely. Some of this is difficult because of the availability of survey questions, but one project that I’m working on, I analyzed the 2008 National Annenberg Election Study, and this is actually at the state legislative level, not even at the congressional district level, but they ask questions about, do you personally know your representative in the state legislature? And then they clarified it by saying, as in if you were to call them, would they recognize you or your name? So there’s a personal relationship with this member.
38:06 Paul Matzko: I like that.
38:07 Dan Bowen: It’s a very unique question. And by far the most important determinant of this sort of a personal relationship with elected representative was the size of the lower chamber districts in the state legislature. Large districts, 5% or fewer of the survey respondents said that they had that kind of relationship with their representative. So that the representative knew them, and the respondent felt like or thought, actually recognized the fact that the representative knew them, knew who they were. But you’re getting over 20% of respondents in the states with the smallest legislative districts felt that way. So again, we have a very large country.
39:02 Dan Bowen: So the reform that we would be considering here would be expanding the size of the US House. The idea of getting back to 50,000-person districts is probably unrealistic. But we certainly could change the size of the House to get to maybe 350,000 people instead of 700,000. And if population size continues to grow, this problem isn’t gonna go away. It’s gonna continue to get worse over time.
39:42 Paul Matzko: The problem, however, with the idea of expanding the House of Representatives is that doing so requires the support of the House of Representatives, and we’re asking them to dilute their own political power. Each individual House member right now, well, their vote goes from being worth 1/435th of the power of the House, and if we double the size of the House, it’s now worth 1/870th of that power or half as much. So why would Congress ever agree to voluntarily give up that power? I put the question to Dan.
40:17 Dan Bowen: I think it really makes sense why the House has been frozen since really the 1929 change to the Reapportionment Act. Once that change was implemented and reapportionment happened automatically, it really was then very difficult to change because, of course, exactly like you said, Paul, the current members would be facing a decrease in power. So why would they do that? I think there are a couple of potential windows for making that change. One would be, after every decennial census, we have reapportionment and states lose, right, states lose representatives, they get reapportioned over to some other growing state.
41:11 Dan Bowen: And I can imagine that such disruption, it always leads to losers across state lines. And I can sort of imagine that perhaps there could be a coalition that could be built of states, folks from states who are losing representation and power in Congress. And it also affects not just… I’m from New York. If I’m from New York and I lose a representative, it doesn’t just impact me, impacts all members in New York, because that means that we’re going to redraw the lines of everybody, and it’s gonna be a shock to the system. So there’s gonna be more change that we would have needed to have otherwise, because we lost that one or two members. So there could be some potential there.
42:00 Dan Bowen: Another potential way of building support for… I would suggest two other ways that this might happen, in actual reform. The first way is that members usually do better closer to their, electorally speaking, closer to their home bases of support. Members started out as state legislators or a mayor of a town. And geographic space matters. They’ve built support, and they expanded that support over time. So that they can help themselves by developing relationships with voters and expanding, continually expanding a district does not necessarily help them in their goals.
42:46 Dan Bowen: So it is a trade‐off for them between ease in the public, developing those relationships with the voters, getting their name out there, removing the need to fundraise so much money, which is something that members don’t like to do and takes a huge amount of time. So they have an easier job with voters and building support in their district, but they would have less power in the House. So I think it’s an interesting question for members to consider once this… Is there an opportunity there to do re‐think what that trade‐off is, and maybe there’ll be more folks than we would think that would actually prefer, because they don’t have a lot of power in the House now. There are constant complaints about the leadership running rough‐shod over a sitting member; maybe some incumbents would consider making that switch to have a safer, more manageable relationship with their constituency in a smaller district for even less clout in the House of Representatives.
43:56 Paul Matzko: There is an additional upside from having smaller House districts, which is that doing so tends to instill just a little more backbone in the individual legislators. It makes them more independent from party control, less reliant, for example, on the party leadership for fundraising in order to maintain their seat.
44:15 Dan Bowen: If you think about the ways that a member can cultivate support, there aren’t that many. They have the party, they can cultivate support with interest groups, many times national interest groups, and then they have geography. They can credit claim, they can reach out to their district through targeted messages, they can provide constituent service for voters who need help navigating government or have some other problem. They can bring back projects to the district, use their position on a committee to get favorable treatment for someone in their district. So there is a lot of sources or ways that a member can cultivate support. And I do think that in smaller districts, those non‐ideological and non‐partisan mechanisms are advantaged, they’re gonna be more effective.
45:15 Dan Bowen: You’ll be able to build an independent name for yourself in a better way, if you have a smaller district and you can interact with voters when they see you at the grocery store, say, if we get it really small, than if everything is always on TV. If no voters can actually know who you are or know anything about you other than your voting record on the House or what the interest group says about you, well, then, that’s the image that you have to craft. And you have to play nice with the party because the party is helping you fund‐raise and the party connects you with those major donors and you need that money to run your campaign. As well as of course, the party holds all the keys to power and might also control…
46:01 Paul Matzko: Committee assignments…
46:04 Dan Bowen: Exactly. Committee assignments, who gets to run for the center seat and so on. So we’ve gone that route for a while, that we’ve sort of allowed districts to get larger, the resources available for members to cultivate individual support is not particularly high right now, in fact, incumbency advantage in Congress is almost gone, so incumbent members get almost nothing for being the incumbent. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, they were… They had a additional 70 points on the two‐party vote in general, on average, and the most recent elections were down to 1% to 2%, so they’re getting almost no benefit from being an incumbent. And we could talk about whether that’s good or bad, but I think that’s related to these trends, districts are large, everything is hyper‐polarized and hyper‐partisan, and those are gonna have impacts on how members behave. So maybe allowing geography and local differences to play a larger role will benefit Congressional representation.
47:21 Paul Matzko: Let’s just take a minute and imagine how different this election day could be if we’d already enacted these reforms. Let’s say the air waves, they feature many fewer negative ads since the candidates from all five major parties are worried about alienating potential second and third place voters. When you go and fill out your ballot, you can vote both strategically for the candidate or party you prefer, while also tactically giving your second or third place vote to the candidate that’s more likely to win. And you actually know the people you’re voting for. You leave the voting booth feeling good about yourself and confident that you’ve been part of a fair and representative process. The gap between how good that sounds and how you’ll actually feel next week, it’s a measure of how hard we all should be working to fix our broken system.
48:13 Paul Matzko: Now, quite note before I go. This is going to be the last regular episode of this iteration of Building Tomorrow. That’s the bad news, but the good news is that we are revamping this podcast into a season‐long show that really dives deep into topics. It’ll look more like this episode or our series on Silicon Valley or the episode we did about how we can fix Social Security and all retire as millionaires. That’s what’s gonna be coming down the pike in 2021 and I’ll have more to say about that in two weeks. As always, until then, be well.
48:50 Paul Matzko: This episode of Building Tomorrow was produced by Landry Ayres for https://wwlibertarianism.org. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, check out our online encyclopedia or subscribe to one of our half‐dozen podcasts.