I have been fascinated by racial redistricting for quite some time now. The topic encompasses three issueslaw, race, and politicswhich together serve as the cornerstone of my Political Science major here at Stanford University. When I first saw how effective the practice has been at increasing the number of racial minorities in Congress, I figured it was a progressive endeavor that was in the best interests of the African-American and Latino communities. However, as I began to read the critical reviews authored by Abigail Thernstrom, Carol Swain, and most importantly, the Supreme Court, I was left to wonder about the relative merits of race-conscious districting.
Originally, I thought this thesis should attempt to answer the overarching question of whether the creation of majority-minority districts should continue. I told myself to pick one side of the debate, pick apart the other side, and arrive at a simple conclusion. But I struggled mightily in my efforts to wholeheartedly support either of these two sides. I was left in a sort of academic stupor, unsure of which direction my project should take.
Early on, I read that alternative voting systems, based on proportional representation, might do a better job of providing racial minorities with adequate political influence. Yet like so many others have done, I ignored and quickly discarded this idea. After all, wasnt proportional representation the same electoral system that often paralyzed the Italian government? Didnt proportional representation lead to beer-drinking political parties in the emerging Russian democracy? Certainly these alternative voting procedures could have no place within the American polity could they?
With a little more research, I slowly began to realize that there was a third framework to what I previously thought was only a two-dimensional dispute. It just so happened that PR voting procedures were not really that bizarre, had been endorsed by a number of academics, and had actually been used in various parts of this country. Most importantly, they could be particularly useful to those state legislatures that had to deal with the racial redistricting dilemma. By providing racial minorities the capability to elect a representative of their choice, without the special protection of a majority-minority district, these novel voting methods appeared to constitute a panacea to this confounding controversy.
However, Congress historic preference for single-member plurality districts currently precludes implementation of these systems. This legal norm did not originate in 1787 though. The Framers may have indicated their preference for district elections, but the Constitution does not expressly require any particular electoral system. Rather, the history of district mandates begins with the 1842 Apportionment Act, the first law to prescribe the manner in which House members would be elected. Congress waited until 1862 to pass the next districting provisions, but subsequently reaffirmed this legislation every decade up to the 1920s. Curiously, over forty years passed before another single-member district mandate passed through the federal Legislature. Yet it is this law, enacted in 1967, that unfortunately prohibits any usage of PR voting procedures today.
Before I could abandon my belief in these different voting methods though, I had to consider the fundamental principles underlying this historic preference for district elections. I also needed to explore the two most important districting mandates, the first from 1842 and the last from 1967, and determine what motivated these two different Congress to demand electoral uniformity. After all, as Richard Pildes and Kristen Donoghue wrote in 1995,
We might explore the ideas and values that motivated the original American choice for a system of territorial districts with winner-take-all rules At the least, this kind of historical analysis can deflate any sense that districting with winner-take-all voting rules reflected a deliberate choice to reject alternative voting systems. Beyond that, such analysis might reveal that the aims thought best served in 1789 or 1842 by traditional electoral structures are better served today by more sophisticated structures not conceived of or widely understood then.
I had finally found my own niche within this extensively covered debate. My project would then gain a heightened degree of pertinence when, on March 17 of this year, Representative Melvin L. Watt introduced the States Choice of Voting Systems Act. If passed, the bill would repeal the 1967 district mandate, allowing states to experiment with these alternative voting systems. This Act would help the nation maintain its admirable gains in racial minority representation, but without the "political affirmative action" techniques that have been so widely scorned. Consequently, I felt the need to explore this bill, along with the districting mandates it would repudiate, more closely.
First and foremost, I would like to thank Kareem Crayton for the valuable insight, time, and effort he contributed to my research. Without his help, this thesis may not have been possible. I would also like to thank Rob Richie of the Center for Voting and Democracy, as well as Professors Pamela Karlan and Jack Rakove, for their helpful thoughts on my research. Finally, Id like to thank Professor Jerome Maddox for supervising this project.