Can We Keep Diverse Voice In Our Civic Dialog?
Charlotte Faces the Question of How to Maintain Diversity in Our Local Government Bodies in the Face of Government Growth.

By Kelly Alexander, Jr.
Published January 11th 2001 in Charlotte Observer
If you are expecting the predictable "politically correct" position on issues from me this year, think again. I believe it is time for us to posit solutions applicable to the century we live in, not the one we just left behind. We must look critically at the old paradigms; where they no longer fit new realities, we must have the courage to change them. We must also have the courage to proclaim in the face of demands for change that "if it ain't broke, it don't need fixing."

The beginning of a new century is always a raucous place to be, full of the clash, clang, boom of a civilization going places. Part of our local raucous debate ought to be over how best to maintain diversity in our local body politic.

Since approximately the last quarter of the 20th century, our community has demonstrated support for heterogeneous political bodies - councils, boards and commissions that represent a diversity of economic, ethnic and political opinions. The first indication of this trend was the election of Fred Alexander to City Council by only a few votes.

Another important indication was the switch from pure at-large to a combination of district and at-large representation.

The switch was grassroots-driven, welling up from a belief that the City Council, and by extension all local government, was no longer representative of all our citizens. At-large representation had concentrated our elected officials into a few neighborhoods and underrepresented ethnic minorities and women. District representation opened the electoral process. It was the right thing to do at that time.

The problem with electoral heterogeneity and district representation is that the size and make up of districts change over time. Ethnic populations disperse. Suburban areas are annexed. District lines grow to accommodate population growth. The county towns, like the city neighborhoods before them, want clearer voices articulating their needs. Latin and Asian populations emerge with unique needs of their own.

I believe that heterogeneous political bodies are in and of themselves beneficial to our community, bringing as they do many voices to the civic dialogue. The question for us as we start into a new century is how to maintain heterogeneity in the face of urban growth.

One answer is to decrease the size of districts, while increasing the number of representatives. This solution could ultimately produce New York-style urban politics. Another solution is to change the electoral system while maintaining modest size councils, commissions and boards.

Any replacement electoral system must protect the essential interests of the existing stakeholders, while permitting new stakeholders to emerge. Several voting methods, using at-large election, permit these seemingly mutually exclusive outcomes. They are limited voting (voters have fewer votes than the number of seats open), preference voting (voters rank their choices) and cumulative voting (each voter has the same number of votes as the positions to be filled. The votes can be used any way the voter desires - place them all on one candidate or spread them out; it's the voters choice).

None of these systems is a magic bullet; each has advantages and disadvantages. They all make it more likely that our community will maintain heterogeneous political bodies of reasonable size.

The price of maintaining heterogeneity under these systems will be increased voter education. Straight ticket voting, though not prohibited, is more difficult to sustain. In effect, each voter creates a "district of the imagination." The grass roots will of necessity become more politically sophisticated.

Candidates will be unable to write off sections of the community, because their constituents will live everywhere. Political extremists should find it more difficult to win elections. County-wide voter alliances will be relatively more important, as successful candidates seek to represent us from the center of the political spectrum.

Noting is done in our community without a study or two. So I humbly request that our county commissioners, City Council, school board and board of elections, along with the respected political science departments of our local universities, jointly study the impact of changing demographics on the composition of our elected bodies.

The study should assume heterogeneity as a given on all our political bodies and explore how best to maintain it. The public debate on our electoral future should be fueled by studied analysis, not conjecture or blind adherence to the status quo.