Raleigh News and Observer
Limit voting to expand democracy
May 30, 2001
The General Assembly is getting
down to the contentious business of redistricting for legislative
and congressional elections. Democrats and Republicans seem
confident they can turn the tables on the other party and use
redistricting to gain advantage in the next elections.
could lead to more redistricting lawsuits. With some simple
modifications, legislators could spare voters, taxpayers and
themselves much of the agony and expense associated with
redistricting. The result would be fairer elections for parties and
candidates and fairer representation for voters.
elections today are held in single-member districts. One legislator
is chosen to represent all the voters of a district. The problem is
that up to 49 percent may have voted against their "representative.
Some districts--such as state House district 23 covering Durham
County--elect three members. But most multimember districts aren't
much better at representing the minority. The 23rd district has
elected only Democrats, while other multimember districts elect only
A simple procedure called limited voting would combine
the attributes of single- and multimember districts. For example,
the 120-member state House of Representatives could be divided into
40 three-member districts. Each party could nominate three
candidates. But instead of voting for three, a voter could choose
one candidate in the general election.
The party whose candidates
receive the most votes would get two seats. The runner-up party
would get one seat. The top vote-getters in each party would get
their party's seats. Every district would have two-party
representation in the legislature, and every Democratic and
Republican voter would have a directly elected representative.
Limited voting is currently used in nine North Carolina localities,
including Beaufort, Bladen, Martin and Sampson counties, to elect
city councils, county commissioners and school boards. "Limiting"
the vote to fewer than the number being elected prevents the
majority from shutting out the minority.
Limited voting was first
adopted to help racial minorities get elected. Applying it to
partisan legislative elections would enable Republicans to be
elected in Democratic strongholds like Durham and Orange counties,
and Democrats to be elected in the GOP's mountain and western
But the chief beneficiaries would be the
thousands of voters in every part of the state who today are
represented by a party and a legislator they rejected at the polls.
North Carolina voters are closely divided in partisan preferences.
In elections for U.S. Senate in 1998 and governor and lieutenant
governor in 2000, the Democratic candidate averaged about 53 percent
of the two-party vote. In some Council of State and statewide
judicial races, the Democratic and Republican candidates were
separated by a single percentage point.
Limited voting might not
have much impact on the overall partisan line-up (at least in the
state House). But it would likely increase the number of racial
minorities in office. According to new census data, 27 percent of
the state's voting-age population is non-white. But people of color
hold only 15 percent of seats in the General Assembly (19 in the
House, seven in the Senate).
That's because the current practice of
concentrating minorities in single-member districts wastes votes. In
a three-member district using limited voting, a non-white Democratic
candidate with 15-20 percent support could be elected by finishing
first or second among the Democratic candidates.
Support for a
generic legislative candidate can be estimated from the results of
statewide races within a given district. By averaging 1998 U.S.
Senate returns and 2000 judicial returns, a generic Democratic
candidate would receive 52 percent of the vote in a district
consisting of Chatham, Lee and Harnett counties, and 43 percent in a
district consisting of Union, Stanly and Montgomery counties.
Chatham-Lee-Harnett includes 26 percent non-white adults. A black
Democrat would likely finish first or second among Democrats and win
one of the party's two seats. Union-Stanly-Montgomery includes 17
percent non-white adults. A black Democrat would have a good shot at
winning the party's single seat by coming in first on the Democratic
If legislators wanted to improve elections and representation
for voters, and improve policy-making for themselves by defusing
redistricting as an issue of dispute, there is absolutely nothing
standing in their way.
Lee Mortimer is a member of
the Washington, DC-based Center for Voting and Democracy and is on
the state governing board of Common Cause/North Carolina.