In the last twenty years the United States has seen its constitutional democratic deficits go from being latent problems that most Americans disregarded to being glaring crises that call into question America’s status as a democracy.
The Electoral College, Senate malapportionment, judicial supremacy, gerrymandering, the Senate’s monopoly on confirming judges, the routinization of the filibuster, and the extreme difficulty of amendments have all become more conspicuous, more consequential, and hence the subject of more criticism. More thinkers about American politics see our structure of government as something that could only possibly work with heterogenous parties, not the polarized parties of today.
But What About the States?
I agree with criticisms of the national government and I am glad they are beginning to go mainstream. However, I’ve noticed that state governments are rarely criticized for their democratic deficits. I’ve also noticed that it’s far more common to give examples of how our democratic deficits hurt Democrats than it is to give examples of how they hurt Republicans.
This piece is an exposure of how New Jersey has a huge democratic deficit in its voting system, which consistently awards legislative Democrats a higher share of seats than they receive in the legislative popular vote. Also, in common with all other states and the federal government, New Jersey uses a voting system which makes it impossible for a non-Democrat or non-Republican to be elected.
In fact, New Jersey’s voting system creates unequal voting power and artificially limits ideological, racial, age, gender, and professional diversity in the legislature.
New Jersey’s Quasimander
New Jersey’s legislative districts are drawn by a bipartisan commission, so technically we do not have a gerrymander, but we have a disproportionate outcome that is tantamount to a gerrymander, a phenomenon I name a “Quasimander.”
The legislative popular vote for New Jersey is rarely reported, which is unfortunate because there is a repeated pattern of the Democrats gaining a seatcount in the legislature that is higher than their share of the legislative popular vote.
After the 2021 election, the Democrats will have 60% of the State Senate and 57.5% of the Assembly, but the popular vote for both chambers was 51.5%-48.2%, Democrat to Republican, which approximately matches Phil Murphy’s 51% of the gubernatorial vote. The Republicans’ 48.2% comes despite not running candidates against Senators Joe Cryan and Teresa Ruiz in Districts 20 and 29.
The root cause of New Jersey’s power disparity is New Jersey’s use of single-winner districting. Single-winner districting creates voting power disparities because a district’s turnout or winning margin are irrelevant in who is elected, so that winning by a huge margin in a high-turnout district is constitutionally to winning by by a tiny margin in a low-turnout district.
To explain this more clearly, I’ll focus on the New Jersey Senate, but the same conclusions would apply to the Assembly as well.
*As of this writing, vote totals for Teresa Ruiz and Joe Cryan are not available. I have estimated by using 2017 totals for Ruiz and the 2021 vote totals for Cryan’s Assembly running mates.
Although the 2021 election saw a near parity of the two parties, the geographic distribution of voters was quite different. In contrast to most other states where Democrats are more tightly packed, in New Jersey, it is the Republicans who are the party more packed together. In 2021 half of the Republican vote came from only 12 districts, whereas half the Democratic vote came from 17 districts.
The 16 Republican Senate winners averaged 46,222 votes, but the 24 Democratic Senate winners averaged 33,152 votes.
The top Democratic vote getter was Jim Beach, who got 48,486 votes and thus barely beat the Republican average. Beach’s 48,486 is pretty good, but five Republican Senators got more: Steve Oroho, Bob Singer, Declan O’Scanlan, Jim Holzapfel, and Chris Connors. Chris Connors’s 61,297 votes is #1 in the Senate. The Republican Senator who had the smallest vote total was Vince Polistina in District 2, with 30,776 votes, but nine Democratic Senators won with fewer votes than Polistina: Nellie Pou, Nick Sacco, Paul Sarlo, Sandra Cunningham, Joseph Vitale, Nilsa Cruz-Perez, Bob Smith, Teresa Ruiz, and Joe Cryan.
If we analyze by winning margins, the skew against Republicans still exists, although it is not quite as strong. Even including Joe Cryan and Teresa Ruiz’s victories against no opposition, the average Democratic Senator won by 14,606 votes, versus a 16,923 victory margin for the average Republican Senator, a difference of 16%.
Most analysis of election results focuses on what percentage a candidate won by. I think that is a valid but sometimes misleading metric in evaluating fairness because it doesn’t take into account that turnout varies and voters could have more power in a lopsided district if that district also has low turnout.
In any case, the dynamic is different when you look at percentages and you can see that Democrats dominate urban districts to a higher degree than Republicans do any of their districts.
(You may also notice that NJ has only eight districts that were decided by fewer than 10 points, underscoring that most districts are non-competitive. This underscores the error in blaming gerrymandering for non-competitiveness.)
This disproportionate result of 2021 is roughly similar to what happened in 2017, 2015, and 2011, but in 2013 and 2009 the Republicans actually WON the legislative popular vote, but were trapped as the minority due to so many Republicans living in “vote sinks” where their legislative votes are wasted on blowout victories. In 2013, the average Republican victor won 44% more votes than the average Democratic Senator, and all but two Republican victors got more votes than any Democratic victor.
Some Republicans have spun the 2021 result as a “victory” because they did better than expected and gained seats in the legislature. They have said that Phil Murphy lacks a mandate but that’s constitutionally irrelevant.
The governorship is unipersonal and even having a minuscule victory would not reduce a governor’s powers. As Craig Coughlin said “We retained a solid and comfortable majority in the Assembly and the Senate.” Loretta Weinberg agreed, “the fact remains that Phil Murphy is still the governor and we still have the majority in both houses.”
Phil Murphy has said that he is not going to tack to the center, “We’re not going to change now.”
Disproportionate Power, Inversions and The Two-Party System
New Jersey is not alone in having large disproportionalities.
New Jersey has a ten point disparity but Hawaii, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Idaho, and Wyoming have 20-30 point disparities, where a party’s seat percentage is 20-30 points higher than its share of the electorate. The most extreme recent outcome is Hawaii’s 2016 Senate election, where the seatcount became 20-0 Democratic.
New Jersey’s legislative inversions of 2009 and 2013 are uncommon, but not unheard of.
Pennsylvania’s legislature is currently inverted. In 2018 the Democrats won the legislative popular vote 55%-44%, but the Republicans retained the majority with 54% of the seats. Wisconsin also has an inverted Republican “majority,” although Wisconsin’s seat disparity is not as large as New Jersey’s as Pennsylvania’s. North Carolina and Michigan have or recently had Republican inversions as well.
The Two-Party System
Even talking about a state being “49%” Republican or “60%” Democratic is misleading because a plurality of Americans are independents who only reluctantly vote for one of the two major parties.Single-winner districts that allow plurality victories, a system known as “first-past-the-post,” are the real cause of the two-party system too.
When a candidate can win an election by a plurality, voters must vote strategically since if they vote for the candidate they actually like the best they are not maximizing their opportunity to defeat the candidate that they hate the most. The tendency of first-past-the-post voting to produce a two-party system is called Duverger’s Law.
The countries who have multi-party systems vote by a system called “proportional representation.”
There are several different kinds of proportional representation, but the simplest explanation is that proportional representation has multiple winners per district and the winners are determined by their party’s share of a district’s overall vote. 20% of the vote = 20% of the seats. 33% of the vote = 33% of the seats.
In addition to creating a legislature with more than two parties, proportional representation results in legislatures with more racial, professional, gender, and age diversity too. Using proportional representation would result in racial minorities gaining representation without intentionally drawing majority-minority districts.
A public policy benefit of proportional representation which I think is underappreciated is that it would encourage Republicans to contest urban areas more than they currently do, since they would now have a chance to win urban seats.
In proportional representation, gerrymandering is impossible because moving a party’s voters out of one district would give that party more representation in another district. A quasimander like New Jersey has could not occur either.
In my opinion, a two-party system is inherently less democratic than a multi-party system because a two-party system provides voters with a choice between only two party platforms, and each platform will contain some planks that many voters oppose. The reason proportional representation countries have higher turnout is that there is no such concept as a “safe seat,” so all votes matter, and more choices allow voters to vote for what they really want.
Our two-party system is also undemocratic because it makes it very easy for minoritarian views to be enacted by coalitioning with popular views.
Since the US two-party system is also tied to a partisan primary process where primaries tend to be dominated by party “Bases” who are far left and far right of the median voter, the two-party system is highly polarizing.
Even if the two-party system didn’t produce disproportionalities, even if it didn’t force people to vote for parties they don’t like, states have the problem of nationalized elections, and New Jersey’s recent election was another round of Biden versus Trump as much as it was Murphy versus Ciattarelli.
The Nationalization of State Politics
In New Jersey’s 2021 election the Murphy campaign did what Republicans do in Red States to Democrats and frequently reminded voters that Jack Ciattarelli was a member of an unpopular political party and had indirect ties to a disliked president.I’m not saying that associating Ciattarelli with Donald Trump was completely far-fetched. Aside from praising Trump and attending a Stop the Steal rally, Ciattarelli took several stances like opposition to mask and vaccine mandates that seem calculated to satisfy the Republican Base (or perhaps were Ciattarelli’s sincere views). His use of the term “sodomy” in the context of sex education is also not moderate.
Murphy also campaigned on his record, but the Murphy campaign leaned into Ciattarelli = Trump hard.
So, what we had in New Jersey on November 2nd was a state election that was Biden versus Trump as much as it was Phil Murphy versus Jack Ciattarelli.
This nationalization effect hurt Steve Sweeney too.
Steve Sweeney’s explanation for his loss was “I’m in a conservative district. It’s a tie. It’s frustrating to watch what’s happening in Washington. It has nothing to do with me.”
Because of the nationalization of state politics, I believe many voters were not expressing themselves on state issues, so inferring a meaning from the 2021 result is impossible.
Proportional representation would reduce the nationalization of state politics because independent right-of-center and pure centrist parties would emerge that lack the Republican label. Although New Jersey would still have Trumpists, right-of-center parties would have an real independent character that the real-life NJ Republican Party lacks.
Two Little Reforms Aren’t Enough
The most common response to the existence of disproportionalities in representation is to stop partisan gerrymandering, but New Jersey already has a bipartisan commission to draw its district maps and 10 point disproportionalities still exist, ie, quasimanders. Again, 2009 and 2013 were inversions where the Republicans got more votes than the Democrats. Other states with bipartisan districting also have large disproportionalities, so do the United Kingdom and Canada. It is the nature of first-past-the-post to have disparities.
Maintaining single-winner districts and using plurality elections also makes it nearly impossible for anyone who is not a Republican or Democrat to be elected.
A more meaningful reform is Ranked Choice Voting, which would require a winner to actually have majority support. It would eliminate the “spoiler effect” and thereby make alternative parties more viable. Since a non-Republican or non-Democrat would have a chance in a general election, a candidate would no longer need to win a partisan primary to be a competitive general election candidate, although he or she would still have to have high name recognition to win.
Perhaps if New Jersey had used Ranked Choice Voting in 2009, Chris Dagget’s campaign would have gained traction, perhaps centrist independent campaigns would happen every cycle.
In my opinion, we should adopt Ranked Choice Voting for positions that are inherently single-winner, like governor and Senator, but use proportional representation for the NJ legislature to create a more robust multi-party system and ensure that all voters have equal power.
Two Cheers for Democracy!
My argument for proportional representation is way out of the mainstream. Nationally, even the left-wing of the Democratic Party is resistant to proportional representation. In New Jersey, no elected Republican supports proportional representation even though in this state Republicans would be the net beneficiary. In New Jersey, Phil Murphy does not even support Ranked Choice Voting.
Very few Americans, even among the educated, understand why the United States has a two-party system. Very few Americans think we have any electoral problem beyond gerrymandering or too much money in politics.
Yet, the desire for a multi-party democracy is strongly majoritarian and is overwhelmingly popular among young people.
Gallup has polled American support for a third party since 2003 and in 2021 support for a third party reached 62%.
Recent polling of young people shows that 71% want a third-party.
In international perspective, nearly all other democracies use some form of proportional representation, so in other countries people take multi-party politics for granted.
So my solution to our electoral problems is out of the Overton Window; the two-party and disproportionality problems I identify are problems which 60-70% of Americans recognize.
The United States isn’t authoritarian, but we aren’t at the same democratic level of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe either. New Jersey and other states aren’t as malapportioned, vetocratic, and judicially-dominated as the federal government, but we disproportionalities and huge democratic shortcomings of our own that we must fix.
Recommended essays on proportional representation:
The New Jersey Assembly
(New Jersey Assembly elections have two winners per district, but it is only a system of simultaneous first-past-the-post elections. In a New Jersey Assembly district, if the vote outcome is 26% each for two candidates of the same party and 24% each for the two candidates of the other party, the party at 26% wins both seats.
This parity-of-outcome scenario happens every election.
In District 11, Marilyn Piperno (R) got 25.05% and her running mate Kimberly Eulner (R) got 24.94% versus Joann Downey (D) and Eric Houghtaling (D) getting 24.69% and 24.5%, respectively.
Despite how close the outcome was, the Republican Party is getting both seats.
I see this outcome as unfair, whichever party happens to win.
Proportional representation would have more than two representatives per district, but if the NJ Assembly used proportional representation, the two parties would each get one seat in a close where the winner has less than two-thirds support.
Some other states have more than one representative per district, but none use proportional representation.)
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