by Alan F. Zundel
The dysfunctions of our election system are well known and have inspired several reform proposals, but one alternative has been given little attention: mixed-member election systems. The potential benefits of moving to a mixed-member system include:
- electing a legislature more reflective of the range of voters’ viewpoints
- giving voters more actual choices beyond the two dominant political parties
- retaining local ties between each district and the legislator it elects
- offsetting partisan gerrymandering of state and congressional districts
- altering the two-party dynamic of gridlock and lack of compromise
- creating more diversity in political representation
What are mixed-member districts? Mixed-member districts elect members to the legislature with a mix of methods: election of one candidate from each geographical district (as we do now) plus election of several at-large candidates to rectify imbalances in voter support for the various political parties.
Your ballot would only have one simple change. In addition to voting for a candidate for your state assembly district and your state senate district, as we currently do, you would have a separate vote to pick which of Oregon’s several political parties you would most like to represent your views in the legislature.
The legislature would be expanded to include several at-large seats. These seats would be awarded to designated candidates from each political party so as to bring the party composition of the legislature into closer alignment with the proportion of support each party received in the party-support vote.
For example, if due to gerrymandered districts one of the major political parties received fewer district seats than its proportion of the party-support vote would indicate, it would be awarded one or more at-large seats to balance this unfair disadvantage. Or if a smaller political party received sufficient support in the party-support vote, it would be awarded one or more at-large seats to give it a voice and a vote in the legislature.
Mixed-member districts were invented as a political compromise when Germany was reorganizing its political system after the Second World War. After demonstrating its benefits over the following forty years or so, other nations looking to fix problems in their election systems began to take an interest in it. Since the 1990s there has been a wave of nations adopting mixed-member elections, including New Zealand, Italy, Hungary, Bolivia, Mexico, and Japan.
How might a mixed-member election system be instituted in Oregon?
Because a proportional representation election system is explicitly allowed in Article 2, Section 16, of the Oregon Constitution, a mixed-member system could be adopted by a voter initiative or by the legislature passing a law to institute it. Unlike Ranked Choice Voting or the new STAR Voting proposal, no changes in vote tabulation technology would be required nor would ballots be much longer or more complicated than they are now.
The primary difficulty would be in how to add the at-large seats. You could convert some district seats into at-large seats to keep the size of the legislature the same, but this would reduce the number of districts and increase their size. Or you could add at-large seats to the current size of the legislature, but voters would likely balk at paying higher taxes to have more politicians in office.
The best solution would be a combination of the two methods with a relatively small, incremental addition of at-large seats so that the public could weigh the costs and benefits of the new system before deciding whether to expand it further.
I would recommend the addition of a few at-large seats for the 2020 election: three new seats in the Oregon Senate and six new seats in the Oregon Assembly. The cost of salaries, benefits, staff and office space for the new legislators could come from a reduction in the salaries of legislators when the legislature is out of session, unless the legislature can agree to an alternative source of funding which would not require raising taxes. The cost would be relatively small compared to the size of Oregon’s budget. I estimate it to be under $500,000, a tiny fraction (about .000003) of Oregon's state budget of about $173 billion.
Then for the 2022 election one seat in the Oregon Senate and two seats in the Oregon Assembly would be converted from district seats to at-large seats, reducing the number and increasing the size of districts only slightly. The redrawing of district boundaries would be part of the redistricting process scheduled to be conducted in 2021 and the change to at-large seats would entail no additional costs.
As politicians in office are usually reluctant to change the election system, a citizens’ ballot initiative should be seriously considered. To get on the ballot in the November 2018 election, over 90,000 signatures would need to be submitted by a year from now, in early July of 2018.