Winning Fair Representation with Alternative Voting Systems

By Rob Richie

Vol. 22, No. 4, 2000 pp. 22-24

Experts suggest that some 95 percent of black representation in the next decade will be won or lost in the upcoming redistricting. Without substantial numbers of black voters in districts, very few black candidates will win; the U.S. Senate is the most notorious example of the negative impact of racial block voting-with its lack of black or Latino members a direct consequence of no state having a black or Latino majority.

Dependence on redistricting to provide representation to black people and other communities of color is based on three factors: white voters' general preference for white candidates; the fact that people of color are in the minority in most areas; and the general use in the United States of "winner-take-all" methods of voting in which a 50.1 percent majority in a given constituency wins all representation in its area.

Policy makers have few short-term means to end racism, but through redistricting they have the power to turn blacks into majorities in certain electoral districts. They also have the power to address the third barrier to fair representation: winner-take-all elections. Systems that provide more complete representation of the electorate can allow more racial minorities to elect candidates. In such "proportional" systems, like-minded groupings of voters can pool their votes from across a constituency to elect candidates in accordance with their voting strength. A 50.1 percent electoral majority remains well-positioned to win the majority of seats, but it cannot shut out a substantial political minority. With proportional systems, many voters gain new power to elect the representation for which they currently are deprived due to their minority status in their area. As American society grows increasingly diverse and communities of interest increasingly develop along non-geographic lines, proportional voting systems are drawing even more attention. Freeing more voters to define their representation with their votes has fundamental appeal.

It also works. When Cincinnati used a proportional system to elect its nine-member city council from 1925 to 1955, a cohesive grouping of voters comprising 10 percent of the electorate could elect a seat. At least one black candidate consistently was elected despite blacks making up well under 20 percent of the population, and both major parties pursued the black vote in efforts to control the council. Today in Peoria, Illinois, where blacks are a fifth of the population, black candidates have won one of five citywide seats since a proportional plan was adopted before the 1991 elections.

The most dramatic recent example of the impact of proportional voting comes from Texas. In May 2000, the Amarillo Independent School District for the first time used a proportional system called cumulative voting to elect seats to its school board. Blacks and Latinos in Amarillo together comprise nearly a quarter of the city's population, but no black or Latino candidate had won a seat on the school board in decades. Instituted to settle a voting rights lawsuit involving the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and the NAACP, cumulative voting had an immediate impact. Both a black candidate and a Latino candidate won seats with strong support in their respective communities, voter turnout increased four times over the most recent school board


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election, and all parties in the voting rights settlement expressed satisfaction with the new system.

Cumulative voting and limited voting also have been used in nearly two dozen Alabama localities for a decade in the wake of a sweeping decision in a voting rights case. Analyses of these Alabama elections demonstrate that they have boosted turnout and increased black representation as much as likely would have occurred with single-member districts.

Cumulative voting was first introduced to many Americans in 1993 during the controversy over cumulative voting advocate Lani Guinier's nomination to head the civil rights division of the Department of Justice. That a generally conservative city like Amarillo would settle a voting rights case with cumulative voting is only one example of how proportional systems-specifically, cumulative voting, choice voting, and limited voting, which are based on voting for candidates rather than party-based systems as used in South Africa and most European nations-have evolved to be credible alternatives for empowerment.

In 1995, Texas Governor George W. Bush signed legislation to allow school districts to adopt cumulative voting and limited voting, and more than fifty Texas jurisdictions have settled voting rights cases with cumulative voting.

Other recent examples of how proportional systems are gaining attention include:

  • In 1999 North Carolina Congressman Melvin Watt

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    introduced the States' Choice of Voting Systems Act (HR 1173) to remove a 1967 requirement that states use single-member districts for U.S. House elections. Those testifying in favor of the bill at a hearing included the Department of Justice and Republican Congressman Tom Campbell.
  • In 1998, Judge David Coar ordered Chicago Heights, Illinois, to adopt cumulative voting to assist black and Latino voters in elections to the city council and park board. Cumulative voting was used for more than a century to elect the state's House of Representatives, where black legislators had early and significant electoral successes; among those backing its return include Senate minority leader Emil Jones, former governor Jim Edgar, and U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr.
  • As of 2000, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has ultimately pre-cleared proportional plans in states covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in every jurisdiction seeking to institute one. In 1999, the DOJ backed Judge Coar's order of cumulative voting in Chicago Heights and denied pre-clearance to New York City's plan to replace choice voting for local school board elections; choice voting had elected a significantly higher percentage of racial minorities to school boards than have been elected in the city's other legislative bodies.
  • A National Black Caucus of State Legislators task force in 1998 found strong interest among black legislators in seeing how proportional systems might assist negotiations in redistricting. The National Conference of Black Political Scientists endorsed proportional systems in 1999, while the Southern Center for Studies in Public Policy at Clark-Atlanta University is pursuing ambitious educational outreach about proportional systems to black elected officials and historically black colleges and universities. National and state affiliates of US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), Common Cause, National Organization for Women (NOW), and the League of Women Voters have adopted positions in favor of proportional representation. In 2000 the League voted to pursue a national study of voting systems-its first national study in a decade.

The goal of proportional systems is simple: providing means to allow fair and realistic opportunities for citizens to elect individuals of their own choosing. While no cure-all, they are a practical, tested approach to winning fair representation.

Rob Richie is executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. For more information about the Center and proportional voting systems, visit www.fairvote.org.