Expanding our Understanding of Electoral Alternatives
The American experience with election systems has been seriously constrained by a narrow notion of how voters should be allowed to express, through their ballots, their preferences among candidates. With rare exceptions, American voters in this country are permitted to cast as many votes as there are unfilled positions in any particular election contest. However, they are restricted to casting only a single vote in any given contest, without their vote designating any intensity or order of preference among the candidates. This notion, which most Americans accept uncritically, is far from a requisite for democratic elections. Indeed, it is not the way the franchise is operated in most democratic countries.
The concept of casting a single vote per election contest has shaped the framework for debate in the United States concerning the best way to structure electoral competitions. As a consequence, electoral reform debates have been confined to a very restricted range of election system options, ignoring a variety of other equally, if not more, democratic election systems based on different rules governing ballot casting.
In recent years, however, controversies over American election systems have extended debate beyond this narrow framework to include the consideration of other democratic voting rules. Some local governmental jurisdictions have even adopted election systems based on rules other than one vote per election contest. This expansion in thinking about conducting democratic elections has been stimulated primarily by racial and non-English speaking minority demands for a full and effective franchise -- a franchise that is not diluted by the manner in which electoral competition is arranged.
Reasons to Look Beyond Single-Member Districts
For many years, virtually the only electoral scheme viewed by voting rights litigators as a remedy for vote dilution was a set of single-member districts, fairly drawn from the minority perspective. This scheme not only remedied unfairly drawn single-member districts, but it provided the solution to vote dilution caused by submergence in multi-member (including at-large) districts. Voting rights proponents have now expanded their consideration of remedial options, however, to include "modified multi-seat" election systems. In modified multi-seat election systems, elections can be held in a multi-member format (or even at-large), without a systematic dilution of a politically cohesive minority group's voting strength. The key to these modified multi-seat arrangements is a change in the rules concerning how the franchise operates. These changes in the voting rules satisfy the basic requirement of treating each voter equally. However, the changes provide minority groups with an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice within the multi-seat format, even if voting is polarized along group lines. These changes in voting rules can cleanse the multi-seat format of its dilutive tendency.
There are several reason why voting rights advocates have become attentive to these alternative systems. The major reason is that, in some settings, single-member districts will not provide an effective remedy for dilution because of the residential dispersion of minority voters. Majority-minority districts that satisfy the "one person, one vote" criterion sometimes simply cannot be created.
In addition, challenges to the at-large election of state and local trial court judges have promoted consideration of multi-seat election options that are nondilutive but keep judges electorally accountable to all of the voters residing within the primary geographical jurisdiction of their court. Some voting rights advocates like Lani Guinier have even criticized the majority-minority, single-member district as a form of political re-segregation that results in token representation rather than empowerment.
The Advantages of Preference Voting
The modified multi-seat election systems that have received the most attention to date are limited voting and cumulative voting. These systems have recently been adopted, in response to vote dilution allegations, by a number of local governments. Considerably less attention, however, has been devoted to another modified multi-seat system called preference voting (also called the single transferable vote). This oversight is unfortunate because preference voting (PV) is a medium more conducive to intra-minority competition than either limited or cumulative voting. Under PV, as long as minority voters share a preference for a set of candidates, there can be competition among those candidates for minority voter support without that internal competition precluding the election of one or more of them. PV in effect offers minority voters, as well as other cohesive groups of voters, the equivalent of a primary election and a runoff or general election in a single ballot.
The allocation of a single vote to every voter under PV theoretically provides minority voters with the same relative voting strength as in a one-vote limited or cumulative system. Yet the vote-transfer feature of PV allows the same group of minority voters to differ internally over a set of candidates and still elect a candidate or candidates from within that set, provided they are supportive of the set. Intra-minority competition is less likely to negate electoral opportunities in a PV system than in a limited or cumulative (or even a single-member district, plurality vote) arrangement.
PV is certainly no less democratic than the voting rules traditionally attached to the multi-seat electoral format in this country; in fact, it is arguably more democratic. PV satisfies the basic "one-person, one-vote" requirement in that every voter enters the voting booth with the same number of votes (one) and the same option to rank as many candidates as they desire. It is not a difficult system for voters to use.
Cincinnati is the only place in the United States where the adoption of PV has been under serious consideration in recent years, although Cambridge Massachusetts has used it since 1941. PV has been the subject of two ballot initiatives in Cincinnati, in 1988 and in 1991. The enhanced representation of African-Americans expected to result from PV elections was a major theme in each of the initiative campaigns, and a large majority of the African-American voters in Cincinnati supported a change to PV in both elections.
Preference Voting Deserves Far Wider Consideration
PV is deserving of far wider consideration. Lawyers and others seeking remedies for dilutive election arrangements would be well advised to consider PV along with limited and cumulative voting when examining alternatives to single-member districts. PV will not only provide an electorally cohesive minority with opportunities to elect candidates of its choice comparable to these other systems, it will accommodate electoral competition within the minority. Competition, including intra-minority competition, should be viewed in a democracy as a healthy electoral condition. Under PV, such competition can be encouraged, while the opportunity to elect minority candidates of choice still remains viable.
Richard Engstrom is Research Professor of Political Science at the University of New Orleans and a frequent expert witness in voting rights litigation. A longer version of this article appeared in the Summer 1993 The University of San Francisco Law Review.
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