A BETTER WAY OF VOTING

By Editorial
Published January 9th 2001 in The State (Charleston, South Carolina)
Although they've brought more African-Americans to the State House, race-based legislative districts have led many white lawmakers to believe they represent only white people and caused many black lawmakers to act as though they represent only black people. Thus, our Legislature often seems more racially divided than our state.

And with lawmakers facing the task of again redrawing district lines, the potential is there to intensify the problem.

That's why we were so glad to hear Sen. John Matthews, immediate past chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, saying last week that he wants to find a way around drawing racially polarized districts.
His solution is alternative systems such as cumulative voting. In such cases, several legislators represent a single, large district - say, Richland County. But voters get to, in effect, pick which legislator will represent them. That allows racial, philosophical or other minorities to be represented but forces lawmakers to listen to all their constituents, because they never know who will vote for, or against, them next time.

It may seem a radical idea, but South Carolina had just such a system after the Civil War. Whether they try this method or not, lawmakers would do well to follow Sen. Matthews' overall advice, and seek to use the redistricting process to bring people together rather than driving them apart.

########

MATTHEWS WANTS TO DILUTE RACE-DOMINATED DISTRICTS

By VALERIE BAUERLEIN

The State (Charleston, SC) January 5, 2001

One of the legacies of black- or white-dominated voting districts is that legislators can take extreme positions without having to be sensitive to both races, Sen. John Matthews said.

"I think it's exacerbating the racial question and creating what I call a racial divide in this state, which is creating some long-term problems," said Matthews, D-Orangeburg.

A legislator representing a district that is 99 percent black or white can afford to be extreme, he said. A legislator in a district that is 60/40 has to be more diplomatic.

Matthews cited the Confederate flag and education equity as debates where legislators - black and white - have taken extreme positions knowing they would not be hurt politically back home.

Consequently, when legislators start redrawing district lines this spring, Matthews said he would like them to consider some multi-member districts or cumulative voting methods to ensure legislators are more diplomatic.

His comments are significant because he is the most senior black senator and a veteran of the drawings of legislative districts in the 1980s and the 1990s.

"People tend to take advantage and to seek advantage with reapportionment because it will set the tone for the next 10 years," he said.

He predicted a particularly bitter fight on reapportionment, one that will end up in court.

Speaker of the House David Wilkins, R-Greenville, disagreed. He said reapportionment is contentious by definition, since each incumbent is scrambling to make sure he or she can be re-elected.

"Reapportionment is the one issue in the General Assembly that every single member has an interest in," he said. "It is a difficult issue, and it is contentious sometimes."

Matthews made his remarks during a roundtable discussion with other legislators, sponsored by the South Carolina Press Association.

Rep. John Scott, D-Richland, disagreed with Matthews and defended single-member districting, the system which allows one legislator in each district, rather than several legislators elected at large in one county or area.

Members of the Senate and the House of Representatives have been elected to represent single-member districts since 1974.

In the 1990s, black Democrats and white Republicans joined together to create more majority-black and majority-white districts. The consensus is that alliance led to the consolidation of black voting power, and more black legislators. It also led to more Republicans getting elected in majority-white districts, and Republican control of the House and Senate.

Matthews said the key to reapportionment this time will be to clearly define the factors used to draw the lines. The courts have said race cannot be a factor, so the Legislature must agree on what factors they do use.

Some states have multi-member districts but most are in New England, said Karl Kurtz director of state services of the National Conference of State Legislators.

Southern states generally have to meet strict guidelines on racial parity, a legacy of the civil rights movements and the Voting Rights Act, Kurtz said.

"Multi-member districts have been curtailed because of court decisions because it tends to dilute minority representation in multi-member districts," Kurtz said.

States have found that creating minority districts resulted in safer seats for the other side, generally Republicans, he said. "That's not an uncommon pattern."

Valerie Bauerlein covers state government and the Legislature. You can reach her at (803) 771-8485 or by e-mail at vbauerlein@thestate.com.