Can We Keep Diverse Voice In
Out Civic Dialog?
Charlotte Face the Question of How to Maintain
Diversity in Our Local Government Bodies in the Face of Government
Section: VIEWPOINT Edition:
ONE-THREE Page: 11A
Kelly Alexander, Jr.
January 11, 2001
Special to The 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
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
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
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.
community columnist Kelly M. Alexander Jr., community activist and
past chairman of the state NAACP, is executive vice president of
Alexander Funeral Home in Charlotte. Write him c/o The Observer,
P.O. Box 30308, Charlotte, NC 28230-0308.)