Lee Drutman: “Congress should follow Portland’s example.”

Rose City Reform chats with the founder of Fix Our House, a campaign to bring proportional representation to Capitol Hill.

Maja Viklands Harris Avatar

Later this year, Portland will hold its first proportional election. Three seats will be up for grabs in each of Portland’s four council districts. Since three candidates can win, the threshold for being elected is no longer a majority; roughly a quarter of support among district voters is enough.

The result is a new political playing field, where one candidate’s victory doesn’t preclude another’s. Perhaps more importantly, district winners – whether allies or foes – must work together to serve their constituents and increase their reelection chances.

That’s a representation model that works for all levels of government, says Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at New America and the founder of Fix Our House, a campaign for proportional representation in the U.S. Congress.

“Districts with multiple representatives can better represent a diverse and pluralistic society,” he says, “because voters’ aspirations, lived experiences, hopes, and values don’t neatly cluster into specific geographic areas.”

The United States is stuck in a “doom loop,” Drutman says.

Drutman rose to national fame in 2020 with his book Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America, where he argues that single-seat districts have trapped Capitol Hill in a downward spiral of polarization.

In a nutshell, Drutman’s theory is that since the party that wins a congressional seat automatically gets all the representation in that district, parties are rewarded for using extreme means to maintain power.

“What I call the ‘doom loop’ is a form of partisan trench warfare, where parties increasingly attack and retaliate in a feedback loop that drives them farther and farther apart,” he explains.

“It’s gotten to the point where we have a bifurcation of reality between the two parties, where they can’t even agree on the legitimacy of our elections. We’ve lost the faith and trust we need to make our democracy work.”

Drutman’s prescription for breaking the doom loop looks a lot like Portland’s new electoral system. He’s a proponent of congressional districts with multiple representatives, where parties can win seats in proportion to their vote share. That would end the majority party’s monopoly on representation, and might even give birth to new parties trying to capture the many voters who feel alienated from politics, he says.

Lee Drutman’s 2020 book Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop

More parties, fewer problems?

This begs the question: If partisan fighting is the problem, why is the solution more parties? It’s about healthy coalition-building, Drutman says.

“In multi-party democracies, parties must form coalitions and alliances over multiple elections, and those coalitions are bound to shift over time. Multiparty systems experience less binary conflict than two-party systems, where the same sides keep having the same fight over and over again.”

It’s not just Congress that could benefit from more parties, Drutman says. In Portland, he believes partisan elections would allow elusive council factions to organize into local parties with clearly articulated platforms.

“Political parties not only organize coalitions, they also make elections coherent for voters. Without parties, it’s really hard to know who stands for what. If people show up to run – who are they? Do they understand the issues? Do they have experience? Without parties vetting candidates and explaining what’s at stake, elections become chaotic and confusing unless you’re an extremely politically engaged person.”

Do multi-seat districts open the door for fringe?

One of the most common concerns about lowering the election threshold is that it could result in ideologically extreme candidates winning seats. Drutman says that might not be such a bad thing.

“Sometimes it’s actually better to have fringe voices in government rather than out of government. If folks on the margin have a sense that somebody is representing them, they’re less likely to turn to more radical, non-democratic means to inject their voice into the system,” he says, noting that a majority of the legislative body is required to pass policy.

Only time will tell which candidates will prevail in Portland’s November election. And when the Multnomah County Elections Division releases the results, it’s safe to say Portlanders won’t be the only ones watching.

Drutman says the national reform movement has its eyes on Portland.

“Portland is the first major U.S. city in over eighty years to adopt a proportional voting system, and that’s a very big deal. The success of the national movement will depend a lot on Portland’s ability to run a successful proportional election,” he concludes.

For more commentary and analysis by Lee Drutman, check out the Substack Undercurrent Events and the podcast Politics in Question.

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