A Democracy To Be Proud Of
By Cynthia A. McKinney
Vol. 17, No. 3-4, 1995 pp. 6-7
One positive development to come out of the Supreme Court’s narrow five to four decision striking down majority-minority districts is the broader discussion it has sparked regarding the way we elect members of Congress in general. Low voter turnout, distrust of elected officials, the term-limits movement, and the increasing desire for a third party are all strong indications that Americans are no longer satisfied with our representative democracy as practiced through the winner-takes-all assumption. As majority-minority districts across America are targeted for dismantling, many are discovering that oddly shaped super-majority white districts are quite common as well, yet remain unchallenged. For many, this apparent double standard is an indication that the entire method by which we draw congressional districts is flawed.
It is important to remember that majority-minority districts exist only because our winner-takes-all assumption makes it inherently more difficult for African-Americans to have representation–due to racial block voting–particularly in the South. Four hundred years of slavery, segregation and discrimination have, without a doubt, created a set of circumstances and interests unique to African-Americans. Such interests can rarely be reflected in public policy as long as simple majorities are required to control state power. If we remain wedded to a system which does not employ proportional voting, majority-minority districts will continue to be necessary in order for African-Americans to have a stake in our polity. Hence, majority-minority districts are not the problem, they are merely symptoms of the much larger dysfunction under-mining our electoral system. Out of all the democracies in the world, only four–including the United States–still rely on the winner-takes-all method of electing public officials. The rest of the world’s democracies have discovered that giving 100 percent of the state’s power to the candidate who can secure 50 percent of the vote plus one, is not equitable.
In its present form, our winner-takes-all assumption manifested through a system of single-member districts limits voter choice. More often than not, Americans find themselves going to the polls to vote against someone rather than for a particular candidate. Our current method of electing political leaders lumps a wide range of issues into one platform, forcing voters to cast their only vote in favor of someone who they nominally support on a few issues. Recently, I introduced legislation which would repeal the 1967 federal statute requiring states to draw single member congressional districts. This law was in-tended to prevent the use of at-large districts, which were routinely employed in the South to dilute black voting strength. However, multi-member districts used in conjunction with cumulative voting, preference voting, or limited voting, not only preserve the voting strength of racial and political minorities, but also increase choices for all voters.
Under these three voting methods, voters would have several votes to cast. Moreover, they would be electing more than one officeholder to represent them in the U.S. House of Representatives (unlike the current system whereby citizens have only one representative in the lower chamber) . If, for example, you liked one candidate’s position on taxes and another candidate’s position on abortion, you could vote for both and conceivably see both elected. By the same token, you would have the choice of casting all your votes for one candidate–the choice is yours. Such a system would necessarily encourage independent candidates to run, since winning would become more feasible. There is nothing in the Constitution which requires us to continue with a winner-takes-all assumption, practiced through single-member districts. In fact, some of these alternative voting methods are currently used in a number of municipalities and counties across the United States. Hence, proportional voting is already working in America.
Many political analysts have said that redistricting is the process by which candidates chose their voters (not the voters choosing their representatives). Cynicism in our political system is at an all-time high while voter turnouts are at record lows. Campaign finance reform and lobby reform are steps in the right direction, yet only solve part of the problem. Americans are a diverse people
with diverse interests–how is it that most of us only have two choices on election day?
The current redistricting battle gripping my home state of Georgia will happen again in just five years. After the next census, states across the nation will grapple with the Voting Rights Act, and how best to maintain the integrity of black voting strength in the context of the Supreme Court’s redistricting decision. However, trimming majority-minority districts will not cure the underlying problem which made these districts necessary in the first place. Such maneuvering will only serve to reinforce suspicions that the shape of some majority-minority districts is being used as a pretext to remove African-American legislators from Congress. Juxtaposed to ultra-bizarre looking districts such as Texas’ 6th–which is 91 percent white and proclaimed constitutional–attacks on majority-minority districts will only provide proof that a double standard exists in the reapportionment process.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Just as the concept of women exercising the right to vote was difficult for many to accept 75 years ago, abandoning our winner-takes-all assumption will likely meet much resistance in the beginning as well. However, the debate about proportional voting must begin at some point. Although I disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the constitutionality of my majority-black district, I do believe that we can use this unfavorable situation to start the debate over expanding our democracy and creating more electoral choices for the American electorate.
U. S. Congresswoman Cynthia A. McKinney represents Georgia’s 11th District.