Fair Elections? Impossible Under Winner Take All Rules

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What we ultimately must confront is our exclusive
reliance on winner-take-all elections. Winner-take-all elections,
whether in single-member districts or for at-large
positions, require winning candidates to attract a majority
or substantial plurality of the vote. By definition, candidates
representing political minorities have great difficulty
amassing such a large a share of votes and therefore stand
little chance of being elected. The same holds true for
minority candidates running in racially polarized districts,
as evidenced by the fact that the 49 states where white voters
are the largest group have 97 white U.S. Senators and
the one state (Hawaii) where white voters are not the
largest group has two Asian American Senators.
Under our current system, racial minorities and the
poor have the right to vote but are often denied the equally
fundamental right to representation. Most enduring
democracies have rejected the winner-take-all model in
favor of systems that ensure that any grouping of likeminded
people—minorities and majorities—gets a fair
share of power and representation in legislative bodies,
whereas our current winner-take-all principle can award
100 percent of the representation to a 50.1 percent majority.
If African American voters comprise 20 percent of the
vote in a racially polarized county, fair voting systems
would allow them to elect a representative to at least one
of the five seats—rather than be shut out, as they would be
in a traditional at-large election or in a single-member district
plan that dispersed their vote across several districts.
A win-win for women, racial minorities and supporters
of more partisan fairness and more competitive elections,
full representation could be adopted for nearly all legislative
bodies in the United States—
including most state delegations
in the House of Representatives—
without having
to amend the Constitution.
One example consistent with
American traditions comes from Illinois. For more than a
century Illinois voters elected their state legislature with a
full representation voting method called cumulative voting,
with candidates running in bigger districts that each had
three representatives. Lowering the victory threshold for
candidates from 50 percent to 25 percent did not overturn
the two-party system, but it broadened representation within
the parties, promoted more bipartisan policy and elected
more women and people of color. The Chicago Tribune in
1995 editorialized that “Many partisans and political independents
acknowledge that [cumulative voting] produced
some of the best and brightest in Illinois politics.”
More recently, in May 2000, the citizens of Amarillo,
Texas, filled four seats on its school board for the first time
by cumulative voting. No black or Latino candidate had
been elected to the board in more than two decades,
despite Latinos and African-Americans making up more
than 20 percent of the city’s population and an even larger
share of the student population. Instituted to settle a voting
rights lawsuit in 1999, cumulative voting had an
immediate impact: a black candidate and Latino candidate
won seats with strong support in their communities; voter
turnout tripled over the most recent school board election;
and all parties in the voting rights settlement expressed
satisfaction with the new system. A person of color – one
African American and one Latina — was elected in the two
subsequent cumulative voting elections in 2002 and 2004.
In the past 20 years, nearly 100 American jurisdictions
have adopted a full representation method to settle voting
rights challenges, and federal judges several times have
sought to impose them directly as remedies in voting
rights cases. Perhaps the fairest of these systems, the
choice voting method recommended as an option in the
National Civic League’s Model City Charter, has been used
for decades to elect the city council and school committee
in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Cambridge is famous for
feisty local elections, good government and higher voter
turnout than its neighbors and for decades has provided
fair representation for African Americans. Fair racial representation
was also typically true when choice voting was
used to elect city councils in New York City, Cincinnati
and other major cities before their repeal in the Cold War
climate of the post-World War II era.
Significant organizations have grown to support full
representation voting methods. In 1998, a National Black
Caucus of State Legislators task force found strong interest
among black legislators. The League of United Latin
American Citizens (LULAC), National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Mexican
American Legal Defense and Educational Fund
(MALDEF) joined with local
plaintiffs to win the adoption
of cumulative voting in
Amarillo, the largest city
now using such a system.
The National Conference of
Black Political Scientists endorsed full representation in
1999. National and state affiliates of US PIRG, Common
Cause, Sierra Club, National Organization for Women and
the League of Women Voters adopted positions in favor of
full representation.
This rise of interest in full representation in the 1990s
obviously did not occur in a vacuum. Voting Rights Act
provisions on redistricting divided and preoccupied the
Supreme Court more than any other issue in the 1990s.
The Court heard arguments in cases involving voting
rights and redistricting nearly ever year in the decade,
often in bitterly contested 5-4 decisions that had the general
impact of limiting states’ use of race in drawing legislative
district lines. Full representation methods solve
many of the legal problems that arise in both political and
racial gerrymandering cases, as has been pointed out by
both Voting Rights Act backers like Lani Guinier and
opponents like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
By boosting representation of people of color without the
need for race-conscious districting, full representation
avoids the legal tightrope created by the combination of
the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voting
strength, and Shaw, which weakens the ability to draw districts
that would enable that protection.
Apart from legal battles over Shaw and philosophical
concerns, civil rights attorneys have discovered, in states
like Texas, Alabama, and North Carolina, that full representation
can simply be a good fit with local conditions.
Perhaps a minority community is more geographically dispersed
than necessary for a single-member district plan.
Perhaps a jurisdiction may want to avoid redistricting
every decade. Perhaps there is frustration that most voters
in a minority community are still left out of a chance to
elect a candidate of choice even with a district plan that
provides for enhanced minority representation. Perhaps in
a multi-racial community, a citywide full representation
plan is the easiest way for different racial minorities to
elect representation.

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