The US House of Representatives isn’t representative — and that’s a problem | Editorial
This past week shows exactly why we need a better system to choose members of Congress.
The U.S. House of Representatives and Capitol Dome on May 28 in Washington, DC.
The U.S. House of Representatives and Capitol Dome on May 28 in Washington, DC. [ ANNA ROSE LAYDEN | Getty Images North America ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Oct. 5

Only Republicans in U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz’s north Florida district could vote in the election that mattered — the GOP primary. It’s the same in the heart of Tampa Bay in District 13, where the real race was the Republican primary, won by Rep. Anna Paulina Luna, or in Rep. Kathy Castor’s District 14, where there are more than three Democrats for every two Republicans. These races were effectively decided in the primary, where the voting is limited to members of one political party. This is true in most congressional districts across the nation.

Want to know why this is bad for democracy? Just review the past few days when the federal government narrowly averted a disastrous shutdown, basically held hostage to the demands of a few extreme Republican House members, with Gaetz as ring leader. We would call them representatives, but they aren’t really representative of anything but the problem with our process for electing members of the House.

Last summer, Gaetz won the Republican primary in his Florida Panhandle district with almost 70% of the votes. Impressive, right? But those 73,374 votes are only 13.5% of registered voters in his congressional district. In fact, nearly half of the voters (47.5%) weren’t even eligible to vote in the GOP primary because they are members of some other party — or no party at all. Having prevailed in the primary, he easily won re-election in November. You are witnessing the results right now in Washington with the mayhem capped by an historic vote to remove the House speaker. If you like what you see, perhaps you think the system is working. But the rest of America deserves a more representative democracy.

The numbers are even more lopsided in Pinellas County’s newly drawn District 13, which encompasses most of Pinellas and favors Republicans because it cleaves off Democratic strongholds in St. Petersburg. Luna won the competitive GOP primary with less than a majority — she got just 37,156 votes. That total wasn’t even 7% of all registered voters in her district, but it effectively secured her seat in Congress. She cruised to an easy win in the general election, thanks to a district that skews heavily Republican.

Castor faced no meaningful opposition in the Democratic primary. However, we include her district in these examples to show that the structural problem crosses party lines. There are 50% more Democrats than Republicans in her district, which helped her crush her Republican opponent by nearly 14 percentage points in November. Imbalances like this mean the representative could completely neglect the concerns of the opposing party’s voters and likely still hold on to the seat. That’s not good for democracy.

We’re not blaming Gaetz, Luna or Castor. They’re just playing by the rules, which don’t work anymore. David Wasserman, an election expert at the Cook Political Report, summarized the overall problem: Only 82 of the 435 House districts across the United States are competitive enough to give Republicans and Democrats each a decent shot to win. That means in most congressional races, it’s the primary, not the general election, that matters. Since fewer people vote in primaries, each ballot carries disproportionate weight. The headline on a Washington Post column we published Monday captured the conundrum concisely — “Who elects all these clowns? As it turns out, a sliver of us.”

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Of course, the voters who turn out in primaries tend to skew to the right in GOP primaries and to the left in Democratic ones. A swath of moderate voters, whether they are slightly left or right of center or straight down the middle, can feel unrepresented when the general election comes, without a candidate who sports their middle-of-the-road views. This is particularly true for voters who have no party affiliation.

The result is unrepresentative government. Rather than appealing to a broad electorate, they need to win over just enough partisan voters in the primary election to keep their seats. That’s not good for governance. It’s gotten so bad that the most extreme GOP House members have been labeled the “Clown Caucus” for their burn-the-place-down antics. Even conservative commentators such as Jonah Goldberg call them that. So that’s where we are.

Wasserman calculates that 77 swing seats have vanished from Congress since 1997. These seats were once up for grabs and now have evolved into almost certain GOP or Democratic wins. The past few days in Congress once again show our system needs to change. Still, the political parties are loathe to open their primaries to all voters. If you want to vote in our primary, they say, become one of us. But why should voters have to join a party for their voices to be heard? They’re in good company with their reticence. In his farewell address, President George Washington warned of the dangers of political parties, fearing that “they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.”

As this Editorial Board argued last year, Florida should consider ranked choice voting, perhaps modeled on Alaska’s system, where primary elections are open to all candidates regardless of party affiliation. The top four vote-getters go through to the general election, held weeks later. Voters then use ranked choice voting to select a winner from the final four. The basic idea is that voters don’t have to select only their top candidate — they can rank some or all of the candidates if they want. Either way, if no candidate receives a majority of the first-place votes on the initial tally, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated. When a voter’s first-choice vote is eliminated, then their second-choice vote is counted. It goes on until there is a winner with the majority of the votes.

In Florida, a similar system would open up the primaries to millions of disenfranchised independent and small-party voters. And the candidates in the general elections would likely represent a wider array of political views than the current system, which often pits one Republican against one Democrat.

Unfortunately, last year Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill banning ranked choice voting in Florida. Time is short, but since lawmakers are unlikely to act, the 2024 ballot should include a question about updating the constitution to include ranked choice voting. Florida’s voters should get the chance to decide if they like it better than the flawed process the state uses now. Otherwise, expect more clownish behavior from the unrepresentative members of Congress.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.