Capital Times

New weight for voting rights

By John Nichols

Capital Times (Madison, WI) January 23, 2001

WASHINGTON. "The Bush people, the Republicans, the Supreme Court, they do not yet fully understand the mistake they made when they decided to steal the election," declared U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., as she rallied activists on Capitol Hill for the struggle to reassert voting rights as a civil rights issue in America.

"Their blatant disregard for justice has done more to bring us together than anything we could have done. We have an opportunity to build on the anger, on the energy that's out there. And we've got to do it together -- Democrats, Greens, blacks, whites, Latinos, Asian-Americans, the whole rainbow saying, 'Never again. Never again will we allow our democracy to be taken from us.'"

The no-ways-tired child of the civil rights movement who now serves as a House member representing a suburban Atlanta district has long been the most ardent backer of election reform in the House of Representatives. But as George W. Bush assumes the presidency under a cloud of electoral illegitimacy, McKinney sees an opening that she says she would not have imagined possible just a few months ago.

"This issue now has a life of its own because of the power of television," she explains. "In 1965, civil rights activism that seemed undoable suddenly became doable after Bloody Sunday. After Florida 2000, voting reforms that seemed undoable suddenly seem doable. Voting rights is an issue -- not just a civil rights issue, but an American issue."

McKinney was one of several members of Congress who joined academics and activists on the day before George W. Bush's inauguration to begin building a movement for legislative changes that will make real the promise that "every vote counts." Organized by the Institute for Policy Studies, the Progressive Challenge Network, the Center for Voting and Democracy and members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the "Action Agenda for Electoral Reform" session took place in the belly of the beast -- the Hart Senate Office Building, where, just a few floors away, senators were conducting confirmation hearings for Bush Cabinet picks.

But backers of proportional representation, instant runoff voting, restoration of voting rights for former prisoners, uniform ballot design, open debates and campaign finance reform were keeping their eyes on the prize of a democracy far more reflective of popular sentiment than the one that would make George W. Bush president and John Ashcroft attorney general.

Stephanie Wilson, director of the Fannie Lou Hamer Project -- which is named for the Mississippi woman who overcame poverty and segregation to successfully confront institutional racism within the Democratic Party in the 1960s -- drew thunderous applause from the hundreds of activists when she called for the establishment of "a Fannie Lou Hamer standard" for judging the legitimacy of political systems. Under such a standard, Wilson explained, election laws would be reviewed with an eye toward assuring that they are designed to encourage maximum participation in the political process by historically disenfranchised poor, minority, female, rural and disabled Americans.

One step in that direction, argued McKinney, ought to be passage of the Voter's Choice Act, a proposal that would allow states to elect representatives to the House from multiseat congressional districts. Under McKinney's plan, which mirrors systems used in a number of European countries, winner-take-all elections could be replaced at the state level with contests in which representation was apportioned on the basis of the vote each party received. Thus, in a state with 10 House members, if 60 percent of the people voted Democratic, 30 percent Republican and 10 percent Green, the state would send six Democrats, three Republicans and one Green to Congress.

"Under this system, every vote counts," says McKinney, who has been an enthusiastic backer of proportional representation for years.

While she will be pushing her bill hard in the coming session, McKinney is not locked into any one response to the crisis of representation in America. "At this point," she says, echoing the sentiment of tens of millions of Americans, "I would support anything that would provide a remedy so that all American opinions can be heard and accurately represented in the Congress and the White House."