Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney

Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) on February 27, 2001 presented the following statement for the record at hearing organized by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. She writes about her support for proportional representation near the end of her statement.

February 27, 2001

Statement Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney Congressional Black Caucus Hearing on Election Reform

In 1857, the Supreme Court majority penned these infamous words: "[The black man has] no rights which the white man was bound to respect." The state of minority voting rights in America is in disorder, and I see a direct line between the debacle of 2000 and that shameful ruling in the Dred Scott case that found that blacks could not be citizens of the United States of America. From that decision and onto Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which struck down a federal law passed to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, black Americans have known that the Supreme Court can, at its worst, become a reflection of the particular mutation of racism of the day.

We find ourselves today in a serious retrenchment on our country's commitment to mainstreaming into American life its former slaves. Affirmative action has been decimated. The Voting Rights Act has been bludgeoned, with its enforcement section due to expire in less than a decade, and the ability of minorities to elect their candidates of choice severely hampered by the Supreme Court in its rulings limiting the ability to create black-majority congressional districts and limiting the enforcement powers of the Department of Justice.

But no one, I'm certain, ever thought that the kind of voter suppression witnessed in the 2000 Presidential elections would ever be revisited upon America's minorities. If I had to give a State of the State of the Minority Vote, I would say that disfranchisement, not enfranchisement, is the order of the day. First, in 1978, the Burger Supreme Court turned the Fourteenth Amendment sideways by outlawing the use of racial quotas implemented for the purpose of including minorities in Americas life. A few years later, the Rehnquist Court stood the Fourteenth Amendment on its head by issuing its startling decision in Shaw v. Reno that completely changed the political map for Americas minorities. In the Court's ruling in Johnson v. Miller, Georgia's redistricting case I learned the hard way that Supreme Court justices, like other participants in our judiciary, are political actors first and foremost. I saw them dismantle my district and pave the way so that other black voters across the South could receive similar mistreatment.

The Voting Rights Act was passed to prohibit impediments to voting. The original focus was literacy tests, poll taxes, and direct threats and intimidation, along with redistricting, dual voter lists, location of polling places and eventually, voter registration, and purging of names from the voter list. However, innovation has never been lacking among those who want to suppress and deny minority voting rights. As we have seen in the debacle of the Year 2000 Presidential Elections, especially in Florida, minority voter suppression comes in many forms.

Take my state of Georgia. In the majority black precincts of my district, it seems that there was planned chaos. In one precinct in my district, white police even blocked the entrance and refused free access for voters because of an erroneous belief that I hadn't supported their pay raise. Too often there was only one voter list. There were poorly trained elections workers, old equipment and overcrowded precincts right next to unused spacious accommodations. The frequent inability to handle high voter turnout is particularly disgraceful. Having to stand in line, sometimes outside in the rain and sometimes for as many as five hours, is outrageous and unconscionable and should not be tolerated anywhere, let alone the world's wealthiest nation. Yet that happened at many of my precincts in my district. It is also is inexcusable to stand in line for hours, only to reach the table and be told that you are not at the correct voting place, that there is no time to get to the correct place and that you won't be able to vote. This also happened over and over again in my district. Adding insult to injury are reports that people were actually encouraged to leave rather than to wait and vote once 7:00 arrived, although they had been in line well before 7:00. The simple fact of closing polls at 7 PM discriminates against working people, especially those with children.

Interestingly, we have Democrats in charge of our county, and they vote with Republicans to deny funds to allow a smooth voting process for the areas of the county now experiencing tremendous population growth. It shouldn't be surprising that this population growth is nearly all black. What makes this governing body's failure to appropriate the necessary funds to accommodate our new voters is that we had this same scenario in 1996, a Presidential election year and the year in which I faced reelection in a majority white district with well-financed white Democratic and Republican opposition. An overwhelming black turnout returned me to Congress despite the new district and in the process the county elected its first black sheriff and superior court clerk. They immediately voted to give the black newspaper the legal organ designation and a change in the county was evident. There should not have been a repeat of the chaos this year, but there was. I would suggest that perhaps the leaders responsible for appropriating funds for DeKalb County don't want large voter participation from the black residents on its south side. That's the only way I can explain the failure to fund adequately the elections office for the past four years. I would argue that this is a subtle violation of the Voting Rights Act with the intent and effect of suppressing the minority vote.

Let me address other ways that we are disenfranchised:

A recent study by the Southern Regional Council found that punchcard machines are disproportionately used by black voters in Georgia and disproportionately fail to register votes. Similar findings come from other states, yet many states are hard-pressed for funds for the infrastructure of democracy. If Congress fails to fund modernization of election equipment in the United States and better training and education of pollworkers and voters, we will send the message that it doesn't matter if votes aren't counted. A one-time federal investment equal to less than one percent of the annual defense budget would give Americans the voting mechanics a modern democracy -- let alone one of our status -- demands. If President Bush truly wants to move beyond the controversy in Florida, his immediate step must be to support full federal support to states in modernizing equipment and procedures.

Why should people who have served their time and paid their debt to society be permanently disfranchised from Americas body politic? Fourteen states bar criminal offenders from voting even after they have finished their sentences. Once these people have returned to society, become good mothers and fathers, have jobs and are taxpayers, why should they not be allowed to vote? And because of the disproportionate impact of racism in this country, blacks and Latinos bear a disproportionate share of the burden of the loss of the right to vote. If Canada and other countries can take affirmative action to register former prisoner and bring them into full citizenship, then so can America. That's why I have cosponsored and plan to sponsor legislation having this effect on the federal level.

I strongly support creation of black-majority legislative districts. In a winner-take-all system in which 50.1% of voters can win 100% of power, they often are the only vehicle for people of color winning representation. But why should we accept these winner-take-all electoral rules that by definition deny representation to any political grouping that is in a minority in an area? What makes Republicans living in a majority-Republican district any more deserving of a chance to elect someone than Republicans living in a majority-Democratic district? Why should the black voters who were so happy to help elect me in my original congressional district no longer have that chance just because the courts ordered my district changed? How can some downplay the role of race in voting in America even as no blacks or Latinos serve in the U.S. Senate-- and no state has a black or Latino majority?

I work hard to represent everyone in my district, but I have no illusions; a large number of my constituents would prefer another Representative. And as the only Congresswoman from Georgia and the only black woman Representative from the deep South states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, I feel an obligation to speak for many people outside my district. Different voting systems would allow elections to be based on this reality, rather than the fallacy that Members speak only for the people in their districts.

Our entire electoral system should be reformed to make our institutions more reflective of America's voters. That's why I have authored in each of the past three Congresses the Voters Choice Act which allows the states to adopt proportional voting systems. Of the world's 36 major, full-fledged democracies, 33 use forms of proportional representation for national elections. Proportional systems also have a history in the United States. For example, then-governor George W. Bush signed legislation in Texas that has contributed to more than 50 localities moving to proportional systems in Texas. In May 2000, Amarillo used cumulative voting for the first time to elect its school board. It resulted in victories by the first black candidate ever to win a seat, the first Latino candidate to win since the 1970s, a tripling of voter turnout and widespread acceptance of the new rules. It is proportional representation in the Republic of South Africa that allows the Afrikaaner parties to have representation in the South African Parliament despite majority rule.

The principle of proportional voting is simple: that like-minded voters should be able to win seats in proportion to their share of the vote without hurting the rights of others-- which is to say that 20% of like-minded voters in Peoria can fill one of five city council seats with its cumulative voting system, and 51% will elect a majority of three seats. Its mechanisms range from party-based systems, which allow small parties to win seats, to candidate-based systems that would simply widen the "big tent" of the major parties. Either way, its impact would be powerful in reinvigorating American politics, encouraging more cooperative policy-making and giving voters a greater range of choice.

Campaign finance reform must become more than a slogan, but law if we are to really give voters a choice in candidates. Right now, the special interests select the candidates before we even get to vote, so our choices as voters are severely limited due to the influence of special interest political money. I have benefitted from current laws, as my incumbency helped me raise enough money to have the chance to reach new voters and hold onto my seat in Congress even after it was converted into a white-majority district. But that doesn't stop me from wanting to establish a political playing field in which all Americans have a chance to play, not just those with money or rich friends.

America is increasingly becoming a country of people of color. We know that southern resistance to minority gains of the Civil Rights Era never ended. But as America becomes a country of color we have seen southern resistance spread across our land. We must remain vigilant. Any policy that has the effect of suppressing or diluting the votes of people of color is not sustainable and violates the Voting Rights Act. We have severe problems facing us today. A black boy born in Harlem has less chance of reaching age 65 than a boy born in Bangladesh. Twenty-six black men were executed last year. And too many black men have been relegated to the streets, underpasses, and heating grates of Americas urban cities. It is only through the vote that we will be able to change the conditions in our community and to right the multitudinous wrongs that have been foisted upon our condition. We have the power to change the status quo and our opponents know that well. That is why the practice of minority voter suppression is alive and well. However, until now, we didn't realize the power that we have. The Emperor is naked now. And as a result, the devious acts of minority voters suppression have been laid bare for the world to see. We have seen them too. I predict that the black electorate will never be the same. Just like white America, we now know that our votes count and as a result we will demand that our votes be counted.