Districting Method May Explain Flag

By Martin Dyckman
St. Petersburg Times, January 25, 2000

Few blacks voted in South Carolina and none served in the Legislature when the Confederate battle flag took its defiant place atop the state Capitol. A generation later, 27 percent of the registered voters are nonwhite and 33 African-Americans sit in the House and Senate. Yet the symbol of secession and slavery still flies, and on the day when 46,000 people marched to protest it, South Carolina was the only state with no official observance of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Public opinion polls show a majority favors moving the flag. It's the Legislature -- or more specifically, the House -- that's the problem. How legislators are elected seems to be at the root of that problem. Minorities are electing more of their own but aren't winning the policy objectives that ought to be the ultimate results of their newfound voting rights.

In South Carolina, as in most states, lawmakers are elected in single-member districts. As in most Southern states, some districts were drawn to include majority-black populations that would likely elect black legislators. The inevitable result was to create others that were largely white. Some South Carolinians say that these polarized districts explain the Legislature's intransigence regarding the flag.

"...We have trained a generation of legislators to think in terms of their constituents as either black or white, not both," wrote Brad Warthen, editorial page editor of The State newspaper in Columbia, in Sunday's edition. "This is particularly true of many white Republicans, whose districts tend to be more racially homogenous than the "safe black' seats.

"So I know where Rep. (Jake) Knotts is coming from when he looks out on the multitude demanding removal of the flag and doesn't see a reflection of his district, which contains 16,487 white voters and only 1,622 black."

In South Carolina, as in Florida, race-based districting reached its peak after the 1990 census.

"What happened in the House," says Sen. Linda Short, the Democratic leader pro tem, "is that the members of the black caucus joined forces with the Republicans to draw a larger number of majority-black districts. They gained a couple more members but lost the House."

That's not quite how black legislators see it. According to Rep. Joe Neal, vice chair of the legislative black caucus, the Democrats lost the House because 14 white Democrats were lured into the GOP by a Republican candidate for speaker who betrayed a power-sharing agreement.

Neal says the racism involved in the flag dispute "is pre-existing of anything to do with reapportionment."

I wouldn't doubt that. Still, it's a fact that the Senate, where districts are nearly three times larger, has voted on one occasion to take down the flag and several times to declare a Dr. King holiday. Neither thought has occurred to the House.

The Senate's two top Democrats -- Short and Majority Leader John Land, who is trying to negotiate an end to the flag dispute -- are whites who represent majority-black districts.

Nonwhites account for 27 percent of the voter registration statewide. Of the Senate's 46 districts, 24, a majority, show at least 20 percent of their voters to be nonwhite, a proportion large enough to command attention and respect. Twenty of those districts equal or exceed 27 percent black registration.

In the House, where so-called "packing" was more extreme, 75 of the 124 districts show less than 27 percent nonwhite registration. Those include 39 where fewer than 15 percent of the voters are black. Unsurprisingly, a Democrat represents only one of those.

Few black legislators are ready to renounce their support for single-member districting. Without it, there would be fewer black legislators. Southern legislatures might be more sensitive to minority policy goals, however.

It shouldn't have to be such a Hobson's choice. Any of several proportional voting models, applied in multiseat districts, could enable black voters to elect at least as many black legislators even as they increase their influence with white lawmakers. But such schemes are frighteningly uncertain to most state legislators.

"It makes me a little nervous, because you'd have no feel how things would happen, but I understand it has worked in a few cases," Short says.

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, South Carolina's only black member of Congress, has expressed an interest in proportional representation. There is interest, but no commitment so far, among black state legislators as well. Says Neal, "There's still a lot for us to learn about it."


Redistricting Plans Short of Ideal

By Martin Dyckman Associate Editor
St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 1999

TALLAHASSEE -- If you thought you heard enough about constitutional revision last year, take a deep breath. Here it comes again.

Senators are talking about amending the Constitution again next year to change how the Legislature redistricts itself and Florida's congressional seats after the 2000 census.

They want to start the process as soon as the detailed census data is available -- sometime in 2001 -- rather than wait until the regular session in 2002, as the Constitution now requires. They also want to take up the redistricting plans in a special session that would deal with nothing else.

These changes are fine, as far as they go. It has proved impossible for legislators to reasonably debate budgets and laws while they are trying to stab each other in the back over who will survive redistricting and who will not. And when they are done, not enough time is left for required reviews by the Florida Supreme Court and by the U.S. Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act, let alone for ensuing federal court challenges. In July 1992, so many issues were still unresolved that the deadline for filing for legislative seats had to be extended.

What's wrong with the changes -- as discussed this week in the select redistricting committee that Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, chairs -- is what's not among them. No one is bringing up the independent redistricting commission that the Constitution Revision Commission nearly put on the ballot last year. No one is talking about moving beyond single-member districts to more sophisticated voting plans that could broaden representation for political as well as racial minorities. In short, it's all about keeping the Legislature in firm control of its members' own destinies. It is about keeping the public on the outside, looking in.

You couldn't blame the senators for being gun-shy on the question of an independent commission even if they liked the idea. Republican leaders spared no pressure last year to kill that idea when the Constitution Revision Commission briefly had the votes to move it to the ballot. The GOP intends the next redistricting to solidify their already firm control of the Legislature for at least another generation. There is no way around them except for do-gooder groups to attempt an initiative petition, of which there is talk but so far no action.

Meanwhile, there's danger that the Legislature might try to make the present bad situation worse. Sen. Jim Scott, R-Fort Lauderdale, a member of the select committee, raised the prospect of using the amendment on redistricting procedure to lock in the single-member district system the Legislature voluntarily adopted in 1982. The Constitution Revision Commission -- of which he was a member -- was poised to recommend this to the voters last year but it was killed in retaliation for the death of the independent redistricting commission proposal.

I write as a reformed advocate of single-member districting -- older, sadder, wiser. Though it did open the Legislature to minorities and to more women, it did so at the cost of creating voting ghettoes that have left the white majority with a diminished sense of responsibility to minority constituents. Lani Guinier described this as the "triumph of tokenism."

Moreover, the single-member system has contributed to an undeniable increase in parochialism among legislators. In 1982, it was not apparent that better ways could be found to provide for minority representation. But there are now models of proportional representation that have proved their success elsewhere, and the Constitution should not be closed to them.

A possible example: Instead of electing six senators in separate districts, the voters of Pinellas and Hillsborough would elect six from a single group. But each voter could cast as many as six votes for a single candidate. Though the outcome might still be five Republicans and one Democrat, five whites and one African-American, the constituencies would be broader, and the Democrats now represented only by Republicans could no longer consider themselves voiceless in Tallahassee. Similar benefits would accrue to Republicans in Broward County.

It would be naive to expect the Legislature to opt for proportional representation any time soon, but one can reasonably insist that it not close the door. There is no need to carve the single-member district system into constitutional granite. Under the Voting Rights Act, no judge would permit Florida to scrap single-member districts except for something better. Until then, why not just leave well enough alone?

Revive Congressional Competitiveness

By Martin Dyckman
St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 1998

It was a sorry day for democracy when qualifying closed Friday for Florida's 23 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Here we are, the fourth largest state, and what will we have to say about whose side -- Newt Gingrich's or Dick Gephardt's -- runs the House for the next two years?


Fourteen members drew no opponents and are automatically re-elected. Two more have only write-in foes. They're as good as re-elected. Of the remaining seven, only five have major party opposition. Five out of 23.

Only two races have the potential to be interesting. Even there, the odds favor the incumbents.

Though the same story is being told in state after state, the people who watch such trends say Florida has the dubious honor of being the worst.

"The whole nation has seen a big rise in noncontested seats, but I think Florida leads the way," says Robert Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington.

The center predicted it in a report last July under the tile "Monopoly Politics." After considering the demographics of each district and how it had voted before, the center forecast "landslide" wins for 15 of Florida's delegation, "comfortable" wins for six and narrower victories for two. The estimate turned out to be conservative, given that 16 have no ballot opposition, which is about as much of a landslide as you can get.

Real choices have historically been a rarity in Florida. Since 1954, as best as I can count, only seven members of Florida's House delegation have been denied re-election when they sought it, and one of those lost a primary to another incumbent after redistricting. Three of the others were defeated not so much by issues but by scandal.

Even if it is assumed that all 23 incumbents deserve to be re-elected, and that after a fair fight they would be, there remains a question that was supposedly answered more than two centuries ago: Shouldn't the voters have a say in it?

There will of course be a torrent of babble from the term-limits crowd. But, rather than proving the worth of their crackpot solution -- which guarantees only a turnover every six to eight years and less competition in the interim -- Florida's choiceless campaigns point to the need for empowering the people to have a voice in each election.

Term limits cannot deliver the voters a meaningful choice so long as most districts remain designed to favor one major party or the other. End the gerrymandering and there is no longer a pretext for term limits.

"Redistricting is quite simply a process in which legislators choose their constituents before their constituents choose them," Ritchie observed in "Monopoly Politics."

I have seen it at work in Tallahassee. To create safe districts for itself, the party in power necessarily concedes safe districts to the other.

That's fine for the insiders, but it leaves Republicans in Democratic districts and Democrats in Republican districts as disenfranchised as if they were in Indonesia. They would be just as voiceless under term limits.

It leaves the incumbents with nothing to worry about except primary challenges, which makes them take more extreme positions than they might otherwise.

The remedy for an undemocratic Congress is simple enough in the abstract, if hardly so in the doing.

It begins with taking the districting power out of the Legislature's hands and putting it in an independent commission. Under pressure from the Republicans, Florida's Constitution Revision Commission failed to recommend this. But some of the leaders of that effort are talking of an initiative for the 2000 ballot. Friday's undemocratic denouement has boosted their case.

Campaign reform is a second essential if challengers are ever to have a fighting chance. Ten of Florida's untouchables already have $400,000 or more in the bank; one has $1.3-million. Whether this is a cause or effect of their untouchability is open to debate, but either way it's not good for democracy.

And people need to begin talking about proportional voting systems such as cumulative voting in multiseat districts, which would compel the parties to appeal to each other's voters -- and which can elect minority candidates without crazy-shaped districts.

Such schemes are said (by their critics) to be hard for voters to understand. A study reported in the Winter 1988 Stetson Law Review, based on 15 Texas local elections, effectively debunks this. It's time for the skeptics to open their minds, shut their mouths and give the idea a fair hearing.

The Damage Done by Single-Member Districting

By Martin Dyckman Associate Editor
St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 1998

Americans have been asking how the House of Representatives thinks it can get away with impeaching President Clinton when public opinion strongly opposes it.

"Why are they not listening to the people of the United States?" one caller wanted to know.

It's because they don't have to.

Congress doesn't represent the people. It doesn't even represent districts. It represents the dominant factions in its districts, and the rest be damned.

Single-member districting is the root of this problem. Gerrymandering and unlimited campaign spending, a monstrous advantage for incumbents, have made it worse.

Tens of millions of Americans have no chance to ever be represented by the people of their choice. Millions more have been over concentrated, under the guise of upholding "voting rights," into electoral ghettoes where they are sure to elect African-Americans or Hispanics like them, but where they are invisible and irrelevant to the lawmakers who represent the "bleached" constituencies next door.

On Nov. 3, the Republicans won 51 percent of the seats in the House with only 48.8 percent of the votes actually cast in contested races. The Democrats won 48.5 percent of the House with 49 percent of the vote. Libertarians, the Reform Party and others wound up with the grand total of one seat -- independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont -- despite having polled 2-million votes, the equivalent of 10 congressional districts, nationwide.

The Democrats might have won control of the House if they hadn't decisively lost the battle of uncontested seats, 29 to 18.

Where the Republicans own most of their seats is significant. Not where pro-Clinton opinion is strongest, but in the South and the mountain West, where moderate Republicans are as unwelcome as the IRS and where the Republican right, a faction within a faction, controls the primaries.

The reverse is often true in Democratic states, creating a Congress whose members are more extreme, more polarized and more hostile to compromise than the nation they represent. The House Judiciary Committee is a pungent example.

An analysis by Ronald Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times pointed up last week how the Southern wing was driving Clinton's impeachment. While some moderates from pro-Clinton regions privately preferred censure, he wrote, "they lack the numbers and influence to force the party's dominant conservative wing to provide that option." Yet if there is a voter backlash, he noted, it will be the moderates who don't return in 2001.

It would be poetic justice if that cost the GOP its House majority, but it would be bad for the country.

George Washington's famous farewell echoes true: "Let me now . . . warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party."

The Constitution doesn't mention parties. It doesn't mention single-member districts either, although federal law now requires them. The law should be changed to permit the states to experiment with proportional representation in Congress.

Single-member districting was better than at-large systems where the dominant party took all seats at once. But without proportional voting, it can still take them all piecemeal. Winner-take-all is for sports, not self-government.

Quebec's recent election offers fair warning. The secessionist Parti Quebecois won 60 percent of the seats in the provincial legislature despite polling fewer votes than the Liberals. Its single-member districts could not have been redrawn to prevent that because of the heavy concentration of Liberal voters at Montreal.

The United States has its own extreme examples. Democratic candidates got one third of Oklahoma's congressional votes but none of its six seats because Democratic voters were dispersed throughout the state. In Texas, on the other hand, the Republicans won only 13 of the 29 seats though they had 51.5 percent of the votes. But among those 19 were three of the leaders of the Clinton lynch mob: Bill Archer, Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, whose districts are so stacked in their favor that only DeLay had a Democratic opponent. They can afford to thumb their noses at public opinion elsewhere.

As usual, most races nationwide were over before they began. The Center for Voting and Democracy, which promotes proportional representation, accurately predicted 358 of 361 winners more than a year before the 1998 election. The average victory margin was the highest this decade: a 43-point spread. Only 43 seats -- out of 435 -- were won with less than a 10-point spread.

Some 10.1-million Democrats voted for losers, as against only 8.5-million Republicans; both groups have no one speaking for them in Congress. That doesn't count 47 districts where incumbents were effectively unopposed. Florida was the nation's sorriest undemocratic example in that regard; 15 of our 23 incumbents weren't even on the ballot, and a 16th had only a feeble write-in opponent. That was more than a third of all the uncontested seats nationwide.

The great mass of Floridians lost their right to vote because of the way the Legislature and the courts drew the lines -- first to favor incumbents and later to create "safe" minority seats with safe Republican seats as the other part of the bargain.

This is what Lani Guinier, an advocate of proportional voting, decried as the "triumph of tokenism." Having nominated her to head the Civil Rights Division, Clinton abandoned her in the face of false charges that she was a "quota queen."

Does it occur to him now that she was right?