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PERSPECTIVE ON ELECTIONS : 'Winner take all' isn't fair; a proportional system would offer minority voices a chance for representation. : Making Every Vote Really Count

July 17, 1994|ANDREW REDING | Andrew Reding directs the North America Project of the World Policy Institute at the New School for Social Research, New York.

Among the most pressing problems confronting Deval Patrick as the new assistant attorney general for civil rights is how to respond to the growing number of federal court decisions casting doubt on the constitutionality of racially delineated legislative districts.

The challenges began last summer, when, in a case involving congressional redistricting in North Carolina, several Supreme Court justices signaled their discomfort with racially determined districts, noting an unfortunate irony in using a form of electoral "apartheid" to solve problems of inadequate representation. In December, a three-judge Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that Louisiana's 4th Congressional District, which snakes along the state's borders for 600 miles, is an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. On instruction from the Supreme Court, another three-judge panel is reviewing the constitutionality of two "majority minority" districts in North Carolina. One of these, the 12th Congressional District, meanders along three interstate highways to connect majority black communities.

The easiest response to these challenges would be a reflexive defense of the present system. Liberal editorialists and civil-rights organizations characterize the choice as limited to upholding the status quo or returning to the bad old days of minority exclusion. There are, however, other options.

Rather than try to defend a flawed system, the Justice Department should seize the opportunity to pursue more effective strategies for achieving equitable representation. For not only do black and Latino districts tend to reinforce and legitimate patterns of racial segregation; they also reproduce the injustice they seek to remedy by denying representation to other minorities within the so-called minority district.

The essential problem is that the very nature of our "winner take all" electoral system discriminates against minorities, and no satisfactory way has been found to fix it. As illustrated by a Florida redistricting case, in which blacks and Latinos have been battling over mutually exclusive plans to secure an additional seat in the state Senate, there is no way to draw district boundaries without shifting the burden of uneven representation from one group of citizens to another. And gerrymandering, as in Louisiana's 4th Congressional District and North Carolina's 12th, invites ridicule, if not hostility.

Simple justice demands a more equitable system, one designed to assure equal representation to every citizen, regardless of race, creed, political orientation or ethnicity.

With that in mind, the vast majority of the world's democracies--ranging from Sweden to Spain to Costa Rica--have adopted forms of proportional representation. Under proportional representation, single-member districts are replaced by multiple-member districts, and seats are assigned in proportion to the percentage of votes received. Thus, in five-member district, a ticket that wins 20% of the vote is entitled to one seat, one that wins 40% gets two seats and so on.

Conventional wisdom holds that proportional representation could not be introduced in the United States because it requires voting for political parties instead of individuals. Though "party list" systems are indeed common in Europe, they represent but one form of proportional representation. An alternative form known as the single transferable vote (STV) is, like our existing political system, centered not on parties but on candidates.

Under STV, which is used in Ireland, Malta and Australia, voters rank candidates in order of preference. In our hypothetical five-member district, the candidates who obtain at least 20% of the first-choice votes are elected. The remaining seats are filled by successive choices, subject to the same 20% threshold. This ensures proportional representation of significant minorities while preserving majority rule (a ticket that receives 60% of the vote will win three of the five seats). It also avoids racial and ethnic discrimination.

Best of all, STV transfers more power to the citizen. There is no presumption that members of a given ethnic group will always want to vote on the basis of their ethnicity. Minorities of all types--political as well as ethnic and religious--are guaranteed a voice.

STV also would free voters from the strictures of the two-party system. Since candidates would not need to win pluralities in order to be elected, third-party and independent candidacies would become viable. With 20% of the vote, a third party could elect something like one-fifth of the House of Representatives.

Furthermore, since all votes under STV count toward the outcome, none are wasted. There is little pressure to vote for the "lesser of evils" and less incentive for the disaffected to not vote at all.

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