General PR

Modified At-Large Voting & Voting Rights:
Questions to Consider

prepared by the Center for Voting and Democracy

1. MAKING VOTERS COUNT: In seven of the ten southern states that have drawn congressional districts with African-American majorities, a majority of African-American voters still live in white-majority districts, ranging from 71% of African-American voters in Texas to 57% in North Carolina. To improve voter turnout, to increase African-Americans' impact on statewide races and to empower more African-American voters, should we seriously consider modified at-large systems like cumulative voting and preference voting that give nearly every voter a realistic chance to elect candidates of their choice?

2. A PRAGMATIC CONSIDERATION: In 1967, Congress passed a law requiring states to use single-member district elections. Given that a major justification for the law was to prevent southern states from using winner-take-all, at-large elections that would dilute the vote of African-Americans and given that current voting rights strategies based on race- conscious districting seem to be facing growing political and legal opposition, would it be prudent to seek to amend the 1967 law to allow states in the next redistricting cycle to use modified at-large voting systems like cumulative voting and preference voting?

3. HANDLING COMPETING MINORITY CLAIMS: In certain situations, enforcement of the Voting Rights Act has been complicated by competing claims of different groups protected by the Act. For example, in New York City's city council redistricting in 1991, Latinos, Asian-Americans and African-Americans were divided over the fairest redistricting plan. Recently, in Nassau County (NY), Latinos expressed concern that adopting the single- member district plan supported by African-Americans will not help them elect candidates of choice. In these cases would it be less divisive and actually more effective to consider modified at-large voting systems like cumulative voting and preference voting?

4. A BROADER MOVEMENT: A growing number of voters around the United States are turning against their elected leaders, as demonstrated by the term limits movement and rising interest in independent candidacies like that of Ross Perot. Modified at-large voting systems like cumulative and preference voting would give these discontented voters -- as well as women, who do much better in modified at-large systems than in single-member district systems -- a much better chance of electing candidates they like than the winner- take-all systems now used for most U.S. elections. Would enforcement of the Voting Rights Act have stronger support if it also more clearly benefitted these constituencies?

5. LESSONS FROM SOUTH AFRICA?: In South Africa's first all-race elections in April 1994, it was inspiring to see millions of voters waiting hours at the polls to vote. The most obvious reason for the high, 86% voter turnout was that the black majority had never before had a chance to vote, but another significant reason was that over 99% of voters were able to elect their first choice among 19 options because of South Africa's use of a proportional representation voting system. Would American democracy be more vital, more responsive and more inclusive if we instituted modified at-large voting systems that would provide "universal coverage" for all voters in local, state and federal elections?




The Problem of the 1967 Single-Member District Statute

As we turn the corner of the decade of the 1990s and head toward the next redistricting cycle in the year 2000, it seems only prudent for states covered by the Voting Rights Act to investigate use of modified at-large voting systems like cumulative voting and preference voting. Given that these systems would avoid costly litigation, promote fair racial representation in a colorblind means, increase representation of women and encourage increased voter participation, The Center for Voting and Democracy believes these systems should be considered a serious option for legislative elections, from local governments to state legislatures to the House of Representatives in states electing more than two Members.

It is true that Congress in 1967 passed a statute (2 USCS 2c, n 2) that requires states to use single-member districts. However, there is a long history of states using multi- member districts or at-large elections for their congressional delegations: Congress required single-member districts first in 1842 (to allow for more political diversity within states), then dropped the requirement in 1852, restored it in 1862 and dropped it again in 1929.

Congress need not restore the option of winner-take-all, at-large elections that indeed are unfair to groups in the minority in a state or a multi-member district. Rather, Congress should allow states the option to use a modified at-large system to ensure opportunities for fair representation -- particularly to resolve voting rights cases. This modification of the 1967 law would be quite consistent with its intent: a major reason for the 1967 statute was to protect the interests of racial minorities in the South by eliminating the possibility of winner-take-all, at-large elections in the wake of the Voting Rights Act

Support for multi-member congressional districting is growing. For example:
"Experimenting with modified forms of proportional representation within state congressional delegations would not require a constitutional amendment. An ordinary act of Congress followed by adoption by a state would do the trick. . . . In a country where diversity of all kinds is still a cherished value, North Carolina's dilemma ought to make us all take a new look at how we vote."
New Yorker editorial, April 4, 1994

"It will take a waiver from Congress to make cumulative voting possible for congressional elections in North Carolina or any other state. Congress should take the hint and do it."
Clarence Page in Chicago Tribune column, March 30, 1994

"With the real possibility that North Carolina's 12th Congressional District may be voided in federal court, we could face again the expensive, tortuous process of drawing new districts that probably won't resolve the problem of inadequate representation. Or the state could seize the opportunity to lead the nation by pushing for a voting system that eliminates gerrymandering -- racial or otherwise -- and thus creates a congressional delegation that more closely represents its people."
Durham Sunday Herald-Sun editorial, April 3, 1994