Proportional Representation:
Next Step for Democracy

Rep. Cynthia McKinney
Roll Call, February 14, 2000


Last year, the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution heard several witnesses discuss proportional representation in a hearing on HR 1173, Congressman Mel Watt's (D-NC) States' Choice of Voting Systems Act, which would lift a 1967 ban against conducting multi-seat elections for the U.S. House.

Supporters of the bill that day ranged from a representative of the U.S. Justice Department to affirmative action opponent Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Calif.). Nathaniel Persily, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice, testified that the bill "might be the most important piece of election-related legislation considered by this body in 25 years."

Proportional representation is a powerful idea whose time surely will come in our Congressional elections this century, just as it has in all other mature democracies around the globe, as well as in American cities ranging from Amarillo, Texas, to Peoria, Illinois.

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 which is to say that 20% of voters in Peoria can fill one of five city council seats, and 51% will win a majority. Its mechanisms range from party-based systems, which allow small parties to win seats, to candidate-based systems such as cumulative voting 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.

In 1992, I experienced first-hand what it meant to largely rural African-Americans in Georgia for the first time in their lives to have a real hope of electing their candidate of choice to Congress. In 1996, my redesigned, now white-majority district returned many of my former constituents back to the neglect of the old Southern districts and left me, in the opinion of many analysts, little more than political road-kill.

Contrary to the naysayers, I was able to raise more than $1 million and win re-election in a tough campaign that demanded both great mobilization of African-American voters and sustained outreach to open-minded white constituents who had a chance to learn about me as an incumbent.

"Fair representation of racial minorities" sounds good on paper, but believe me, it's far better in the real political world.

My experiences in mobilizing voters to win and then keep a seat in Congress helped me see that the reasons for our low voter turnout and restless electorate go beyond a lack of reform in our campaign finance and lobbying systems. Voter choices on election day are usually so limited that when Americans find themselves going to the polls, all too often it is to vote against a candidate rather than for one. In a multi-Member district with proportional representation, voters would have a chance to choose among a range of viable candidates. A voter would likely have the option of supporting and electing a candidate who agreed with him or her on the individuals issues of greatest concern--abortion rights, perhaps, or tax policy or child care--rather than having to settle for the lesser of two evils.

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. Proportional systems would allow elections to be based on this reality, rather than the fallacy that Members speak only for the people in their districts.

My experience in the 1990s certainly underlines the fact that districts are a construct of politics, not geography. The Supreme Court, under Chief Justice William Rehnquist , has argued that districts can be gerrymandered "bizarrely" to protect white incumbents, but not to promote representation of black and minority voters. Critics of race-conscious districting who suggest that race is the only cause of gerrymandering--and only a problem if blacks become a majority in a district--are either astoundingly naive or dangerously manipulative. Redistricting as now practiced allows legislators to choose their constituents before their constituents choose them. Whatever tools were used in 1991 and 1992 to draw black-majority districts will soon be applied with far greater vigor to create "safe" districts to protect incumbents of all races from their constituents.

Most of the democratic world long ago abandoned one-seat district representation in favor of proportional systems in "super districts" with more than one member. In 1996, South Africa cemented its rejection of one-seat districts when President Nelson Mandela signed a new constitution with a requirement for proportional representation.

It is noteworthy that 33 of the world's 36 major, full-fledged democracies use forms of proportional representation for national elections. Even the "mother" of American democracy, the United Kingdom, plans a national referendum to adopt a proportional system in the wake of proportional elections in Scotland, Wales, London and Northern Ireland.

I have long been convinced of the merits of proportional representation, which is why I twice introduced the Voters' Choice Act, a forerunner of the States' Choice of Voting Systems Act. The Voters' Choice Act was a modest but very important step toward promoting serious debate about proportional representation in the United States. It would have restored the opportunity for states to use proportional systems to elect their delegations to the House -- a power they held as recently as the 1960s. Its potential appeal is broad enough that in announcing my 1995 bill, I had beside me the directors of U.S. Term Limits, the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate and the National Women's Political Caucus.

The political establishment in Washington can have a difficult time with PR because it requires that its members earn their power, not inherit it. But the political imperative of history demands that we take action.

Women's suffrage began as a so-called unrealistic idea, as did the concept of democracy itself. Yet today these precepts are so firmly rooted in our polity that they seem almost part of our societal DNA. The discussion on proportional representation must begin in earnest as public discontent increases, voter turnout decreases, and representation of our diversity is challenged in court.

It is high time to challenge the "winner-take-all" notion that a candidate securing 50.1 percent of the votes deserves 100 percent of power.

[Caption for photos of Mel Watt and Tom Campbell, with caption: "In 1999, Rep. Tom Campbell (left), an opponent of affirmative action, supported Rep. Me Watt's proposal to lift a 1967 ban on multi-seat district elections. Watt's proposal is a successor to a bill Rep. Cynthia McKinney twice proposed."]