Limit voting to expand democracy

By Lee Mortimer
Published May 30th 2001 in Raleigh News and Observer

The General Assembly is getting down to the contentious business of redistricting for legislative and congressional elections. Democrats and Republicans seem confident they can turn the tables on the other party and use redistricting to gain advantage in the next elections.

The outcome could lead to more redistricting lawsuits. With some simple modifications, legislators could spare voters, taxpayers and themselves much of the agony and expense associated with redistricting. The result would be fairer elections for parties and candidates and fairer representation for voters.

Most legislative elections today are held in single-member districts. One legislator is chosen to represent all the voters of a district. The problem is that up to 49 percent may have voted against their "representative.

Some districts--such as state House district 23 covering Durham County--elect three members. But most multimember districts aren't much better at representing the minority. The 23rd district has elected only Democrats, while other multimember districts elect only Republicans.

A simple procedure called limited voting would combine the attributes of single- and multimember districts. For example, the 120-member state House of Representatives could be divided into 40 three-member districts. Each party could nominate three candidates. But instead of voting for three, a voter could choose one candidate in the general election.

The party whose candidates receive the most votes would get two seats. The runner-up party would get one seat. The top vote-getters in each party would get their party's seats. Every district would have two-party representation in the legislature, and every Democratic and Republican voter would have a directly elected representative.

Limited voting is currently used in nine North Carolina localities, including Beaufort, Bladen, Martin and Sampson counties, to elect city councils, county commissioners and school boards. "Limiting" the vote to fewer than the number being elected prevents the majority from shutting out the minority.

Limited voting was first adopted to help racial minorities get elected. Applying it to partisan legislative elections would enable Republicans to be elected in Democratic strongholds like Durham and Orange counties, and Democrats to be elected in the GOP's mountain and western Piedmont strongholds.

But the chief beneficiaries would be the thousands of voters in every part of the state who today are represented by a party and a legislator they rejected at the polls.

North Carolina voters are closely divided in partisan preferences. In elections for U.S. Senate in 1998 and governor and lieutenant governor in 2000, the Democratic candidate averaged about 53 percent of the two-party vote. In some Council of State and statewide judicial races, the Democratic and Republican candidates were separated by a single percentage point.

Limited voting might not have much impact on the overall partisan line-up (at least in the state House). But it would likely increase the number of racial minorities in office. According to new census data, 27 percent of the state's voting-age population is non-white. But people of color hold only 15 percent of seats in the General Assembly (19 in the House, seven in the Senate).

That's because the current practice of concentrating minorities in single-member districts wastes votes. In a three-member district using limited voting, a non-white Democratic candidate with 15-20 percent support could be elected by finishing first or second among the Democratic candidates.

Support for a generic legislative candidate can be estimated from the results of statewide races within a given district. By averaging 1998 U.S. Senate returns and 2000 judicial returns, a generic Democratic candidate would receive 52 percent of the vote in a district consisting of Chatham, Lee and Harnett counties, and 43 percent in a district consisting of Union, Stanly and Montgomery counties.

Chatham-Lee-Harnett includes 26 percent non-white adults. A black Democrat would likely finish first or second among Democrats and win one of the party's two seats. Union-Stanly-Montgomery includes 17 percent non-white adults. A black Democrat would have a good shot at winning the party's single seat by coming in first on the Democratic side.

If legislators wanted to improve elections and representation for voters, and improve policy-making for themselves by defusing redistricting as an issue of dispute, there is absolutely nothing standing in their way.

Lee Mortimer is a member of the Washington, DC-based Center for Voting and Democracy and is on the state governing board of Common Cause/North Carolina.