The Virginian-Pilot

An Alternative for Norfolk City Council Elections
Stephen K. Medvic
June 21, 2001

It may be no surprise that politics in Norfolk are racially polarized, but a number of recent decisions serve to highlight how politically dysfunctional the city has become. 

…     The plans of a black developer were squelched while a small business in the white, powerful neighborhood of Ghent was subsidized to the tune of $70,000.

…     Busing to integrate the middle schools was ended, over the vehement objections of a sizable segment of the city, while the proposed plan was tweaked to satisfy the desires of residents in a single neighborhood.

…     And demands that the School Board and City Council reflect the racial composition of the city appear to have fallen on the deaf ears of white elected officials who make up a majority of the council.

The School Board issue is a no-brainer.  When whites in the city are a numerical minority and 70 percent of the school-aged population is black, there is no reasonable argument that can be made for maintaining a majority white Board.  The School Board ought to be elected, but thatís another issue.

The City Council is a more complicated matter. We would like to believe that race isnít a factor in peopleís voting decisions, but the actual behavior of voters tends to belie our hopes.

Redistricting plans that donít recognize racial voting patterns and the history of discrimination in Norfolk threaten to exacerbate the problem and violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Yet voter turnout disparities and largely segregated housing mean that protecting minority interests is difficult.

One solution is to create so-called ìmajority-minority districtsî - that is, districts in which a majority of the constituents are nonwhite.  These districts have been very successful, at all levels of government, in essentially guaranteeing minority representation. 

In Norfolk, there are three such districts for City Council.  Vice Mayor Herbert Collins is proposing to draw a fourth, so as to create an opportunity for a black majority on the council.

It is difficult, however, to draw four districts that could be considered ìsafeî minority seats in Norfolk.  Whereas three seats are now quite safe, under Collinsí plan the safest district is 57 percent African American while the other three are at most 53 percent black. 

Given the disparate turnout rates among blacks and whites, itís possible that only one African American would be on the City Council should the Collins plan be implemented.

At-large elections arenít an option, at least as we typically think of them.  Yet we shouldnít ignore the fact that at-large elections provide incentives for elected officials to consider the interests of all residents in the city, not just those from one narrow district. 

So how can we protect minority interests and reduce the polarization that we see in city politics?  The answer lies in alternatives to both at-large and single member district elections.  One such alternative is cumulative voting. 

Under this system, members of the Council would be elected from multimember districts, and voters would be given as many votes as there are seats to fill in a district.  If the city were to be divided into two districts, with three and four members elected from each, then voters in those districts would be given three or four votes, which could then be distributed as the voter chooses.              

If a voter in the three-seat district wants to spread his or her votes equally between Candidates A, B, and C, he/she could do that.  If, instead, he/she wants to give all three votes to Candidate C, thatís acceptable too. 

Over 50 localities in the United States have implemented cumulative voting, often to resolve voting rights cases, including Chilton County, Ala., and Amarillo, Texas.  In almost all cases, minority representation and voter participation have increased. 

Harvard University law professor Lani Guinier has long been an advocate of cumulative voting.  She argues that this method passes the ìthree tests of political fairness.î  That is, it (1) encourages voter participation, (2) fosters genuine debate rather than polarization, and (3) promises real inclusion, not token representation. 

Indeed, Professor Guinier maintains that cumulative voting is ìmore inclusive than winner-take-all, race-conscious districtingî and that by enhancing the voice of all citizens it improves political discourse.

There are other alternatives worth considering, including something called ìchoice votingî (Seehttp://www.fairvote.org  for more information). 

Regardless of the particular path it chooses, Norfolk should set itself apart as a progressive leader in this region and adopt an election system that enhances representation for everyone and can help build trust among all its citizens.

Stephen K. Medvic is an Assistant Professor of Political Science
at Old Dominion Univeristy in Virginia.