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 œ 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
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