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Representation & U.S. Electoral Systems

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  • 0:01 Gaining Representation
  • 0:55 Congressional Districts
  • 2:50 Single and…
  • 3:23 Proportional Representation
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, you'll consider the importance of representation in elections and how districts can help achieve this. You will learn about winner-take-all elections and ones that aim to be more proportional to the votes cast.

Gaining Representation

Frank is an American colonist living in 18th-century Boston. What a nightmare politics are for him and those around him! When policies are developed by British Parliament, Frank and others are frustrated by not having a voice in what happens to them. Taxes in particular bring on protests. Yet, protests are not enough to represent their views for the long-run. After fighting their war for independence, the colonists work toward creating a government where the interests of the people in their region can be represented.

The United States electoral system is based, in part, on this rebellion of the colonists and a desire to represent themselves. This lesson will explore the basics of how the current system of representation in elections works in the United States today, including single-member districts and multi-member representation.

Congressional Districts

While initially many people were restricted from voting in the United States, over time the rights of voters would expand to include more of the population, such as women and people of color. If Frank lived in modern-day Boston and a policy is developed that he doesn't like, he and other citizens have a political avenue to express their viewpoints. This is because elections are held that give them a vote. Frank's vote will play a role in deciding which candidates will be chosen to represent him.

The United States today is divided up into different districts. If you've ever voted for a member of the House of Representatives, you may have noticed that you were choosing a candidate for your particular congressional district. You might wonder: 'Why have districts at all?' Let's take a look at how representation works at the national level to help answer this question.

Each state needs its own representation in Congress so that all regions of the country can have their voice heard. Each state has two Senators, so are represented equally in this respect. The challenge comes when we start to look at states with different numbers of people.

Frank lives in the state of Massachusetts where there is a higher population of people than Wyoming, for example. In fact, Massachusetts has over ten times more people than Wyoming, even though Wyoming is about ten times the size of Massachusetts (in terms of square miles). If Massachusetts only gets two Senators, the people of Massachusetts would be underrepresented for the number of people that live in that state. Districts help resolve this issue by segmenting each state into a number of districts, aimed at giving each region an amount of representatives that roughly matches its population size. For instance, Wyoming has one member of the House of Representatives, while Massachusetts has nine.

Single and Multi-Member Districts

In most states, the system used to choose a candidate for representative follows the equation of one representative for each individual district. This is known as a single-member district because one single member of the legislature represents a district. Another possibility, though much more rarely used at this time, is the multi-member district. In this system, multiple members of the legislature represent a district. This can be accomplished in part by having larger districts, rather than smaller ones.

Proportional Representation

While most states use the single-district approach, multi-member districts can be helpful when aiming for proportional representation. Proportional representation refers to a method of ensuring that the number of seats held by a particular political party is based on the number of votes for that party. Let's compare this to how a single-member district works.

If the citizens in Frank's district of Boston vote and there is a single-member system in place, there can only be one winner for that district. It doesn't matter if a large number of the voters, say 40%, were in favor of the other candidate because there can only be one winner - it's winner-take-all.

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