Fred McKinney (opinion): Changing how we elect members of Congress

Voters go to the polls at the Hamden Collaborative Learning Center in Hamden last year.

Voters go to the polls at the Hamden Collaborative Learning Center in Hamden last year.

Meghan Friedmann / Hearst Connecticut Media /

Every 10 years the U.S. Constitution conducts a census. The Founding Fathers authorized the census so that the number of members elected to the U.S. House of Representatives would be determined by the population in each of the states.

Nowhere in the original Constitution does it direct the states to establish regions within the states to determine what we know as congressional districts. Congressional districts (Connecticut currently has five, one for roughly every 700,000 residents) is why states engage in the inherently biased redrawing of district lines every 10 years after the new census. Congressional districts are also a major contributor to the dysfunction in Washington.

There is a solution: Eliminate Congressional districts. Gerrymandering, or manipulating congressional districts, is fraught with biases, both racial and political, that are maintained once one party gets control of drawing the maps. We don’t need them nor did the Constitution speak of them.

The new congressional district map drawn in North Carolina, for instance, is designed to return 10 Republicans and four Democrats to Congress even though Democrats represented 49 percent of all voters in the 2020 presidential election. The Republican-dominated Texas legislature has drawn maps that are explicitly designed to dilute the growing Hispanic population in the state. In Mississippi, almost 40 percent of the state is Black and only one of their four House members, Bennie Thompson, is Black. Congressional district maps even in Connecticut will by 2030 also exhibit similar structural, racial and ethnic biases

Similar maps are being drawn in states run by Republicans, and to be fair, in states under Democratic control. There are academic efforts and independent commissions that are trying to address this vexing problem of how to draw fair congressional district maps. The historical and political fact is we don’t need congressional districts drawn or redrawn at all, and “fairness,” like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Consistent with the Constitution, the number of congressional seats should continue to be based on a state’s population. That does not change. What would change is the way we hold congressional elections at the state level. Instead of voters being able to choose between the Democratic and the Republican candidate in a district, voters would be able to vote for as many candidates as determined by the census. In Connecticut, that would mean every registered voter would be able to place votes for five congressional candidates.

This change would radically impact the behavior and the quality of politicians running for Congress. Needing statewide support, candidates could not afford to be so parochial. They would need to have a strategy to appeal to a wider range of voters — urban voters, rural voters, voters of all races and ethnicities, etc. Additionally, prospective members would need to have some recognized skills and experience that could benefit the people. Remind me what skill Matt Gaetz possesses other than his daddy was a power broker? Now it is too easy for frat bros and air heads to win seats because they are running in districts that are designed to elect incompetent hacks, rogues and thieves.

I can hear the criticism of this approach. Some voters, perhaps voters in less-populated areas, might fear they would be ignored by office seekers. Ignoring rural voters might work for some candidates, but not necessarily for all candidates who could choose to represent rural interest regardless of where they live in the state. Similarly, candidates that had an “urban” agenda would fight it out and only those who could garner the most support would win.

This approach of electing members of the House of Representatives would also reduce the power of incumbency. Any House member from the state who does not actively represent the broader constituents of the state would be vulnerable to be challenged by a more creative and effective office seeker. A member would not just be defending his or her “safe” seat, they would face withering competition if they proved to be an ineffective member, or just a poor communicator.

I am no Constitutional lawyer, I am not even a lawyer, but it seems to me that this change would fix one house of Congress and make it a more responsive and representative body. The people would benefit, and America would benefit. The bigger challenge is to fix the Senate. And that can be done by eliminating the filibuster, something also not enshrined in the Constitution.

Fred McKinney is the co-founder of BJM Solutions, an economic consulting firm that conducts public and private research since 1999, and is the emeritus director of the Peoples Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Quinnipiac University.