Empowering Political Minorities

By Jamin B. Raskin and Eric C. Olson
Published October 21st 2001 in Washington Post
In Montgomery County African Americans, Asian Americans and other racial minorities make up 40 percent of the population, but 35 of the county's 36 state legislators are white. No African Americans or Latinos represent Montgomery County in Annapolis. Something is wrong with this picture, and it is a statewide problem.

Perceiving a clear political opportunity, the Maryland Republican Party introduced a redistricting plan that breaks Maryland's large, multi-member House districts into small, single-member districts. This probably would make it easier for racial minorities -- and Republicans -- to get elected. Several leading Democrats, including Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, have expressed qualified support for single-member districts.

However, Democrats on the governor's five-member redistricting commission, including Senate President Mike Miller, say the Republican plan is partisan. Miller is open to drawing some single-member districts, but apparently not in areas that would benefit Republicans. Democratic control of redistricting in Maryland makes it unlikely that the Republican plan will be adopted, although a small number of new single-member districts are possible.

If both parties really are serious about opening up politics, they could agree instead to move to a system of "cumulative voting" within their party primaries. This would create much more openness without altering the partisan dynamics of three-seat districts.

Cumulative voting already is in use in a number of jurisdictions. The process is simple, and the ballot in Maryland's three-seat districts could look the same as it does today. The only change would be that voters could give one vote to each of three candidates, as they can now, but they also would have the option to give their votes to one candidate or divide their votes between two candidates.

By measuring the intensity of voter preference as well as its scope, cumulative voting empowers political minorities to win seats in accordance with their support and makes representation accessible to everyone. An analysis by the Center for Voting and Democracy indicates that such a plan likely would have resulted in the election of several more representatives from minority communities in Montgomery County without affecting the county's partisan balance.

Incumbents can be resistant to change, but the Voting Rights Act requires us to build a more open and racially integrated political system. Through cumulative voting in primaries, Democrats and Republicans alike could advance this shared goal while avoiding the inevitable partisan and legal wrangling that greeted the effort to go to single-member districts.

Legislators in Annapolis should enact rules for cumulative voting in party primaries and consider doing so for general elections. Too much is at stake to talk big and think small about this problem.

-- Jamin B. Raskin

-- Eric C. Olson

are, respectively, a professor of constitutional law at American University and deputy director of the Center for Voting and Democracy.