Shaking Up Congress in Texas

A Plan to Provide Fair Representation

Jim Cullen

The method by which Texas members of Congress are elected is unjust, although not for the reasons enumerated by the disgruntled Republicans who recently played out their lawsuit before a panel of federal judges in Houston.

GOP officials supported minority voting rights at the state legislature in 1991 as long as the creation of new black-majority or Hispanic-majority districts threatened established white Democrats in Congress. And, for the first time, a black majority district was created in Dallas and a Hispanic majority district was drawn in Houston. But, in one of their few partisan manifestations, the Democratic majorities in the legislature managed to protect incumbents.

Now bawling and mewling Republican partisans want to revisit Congressional reapportionment in the federal courts, possibly because the GOP still did not manage to beat those white Democratic incumbents, even after stripping off those loyal Democratic minorities; instead they only added to the Democratic majority in Congress.

It should come as no surprise that a reapportionment plan produced by the legislature would be formed by political considerations, as Rena Hicks, the state's counsel for the attorney general's office, argued. Given the documented reluctance of white voters to support black (and, to a lesser extent, Hispanic) candidates, it seems reasonable to prescribe districts with black or Hispanic majorities, when possible.

But if minority-packed districts are to be condemned as apartheid, the best alternative to increase diversity and give minorities a reason to vote may be to replace the current winner-take-all election system with proportional representation.

This sort of talk got Lani Guinier tarred with the label of "Quota Queen" by the nation's con-servatives as they browbeat President Bill Clinton into backing off from Guinier as his choice for assistant attorney general for civil rights, but the time has come to consider alternatives to reinvigorate democracy and public service.

Proportional election systems include limited voting, in which voters cast fewer votes than the number of seats up for election; cumulative voting, in which voters cast as many votes as there are seats and may divide those votes among candidates; and preference voting, in which voters rank candidates according to their preferences. All three methods are effective in promoting minority representation and all three are viewed as heresy by the political establishment that likes the current winner-take-all method that favors incumbents and money.

A Proportional Representation Plan for Texas

Consider the potential impact of cumulative voting in Texas urban centers: Harris County, with a population of nearly 3 million, now has all or part of seven Congressional districts. If districts were drawn within the county's borders, Harris would get five districts.

Whites, with 64.7% of the county's population, now claim 85% of the current delegation to Congress. If Harris County's Congressional representatives were elected by proportional vote, any bloc with 17% of the vote would be virtually guaranteed representation, while organized blocs with less than 17% would still have a good shot at placing their candidates in Congress. Blacks, who comprise 19.2% of the population, and Hispanics, who comprise 19.2% of the population, should be able to elect two of the representatives under a proportional system.

What's more, any other group that could put together 17% of the vote would win a Congressional seat. Organized labor ought to be able to muster that much. Environmentalists, who are now scattered throughout the county, could send a green candidate to Congress.

Dallas County, with a population of two million, now has all or part of seven Congressional districts. In the current delegation, six of the county's U.S. representatives are white men and one is a black woman. If districts were drawn within the county's borders, Dallas would get three districts (and one-third of a fourth district, which could be filled out with outlying suburbs).

Whites are 67%, blacks 19.9% and Hispanics 17% of the county's population. If four reps were chosen, blacks could combine with Latinos or liberal whites to elect as many as three of their own under a proportional voting plan under which a bloc of 21% could elect a member of Congress.

The current winner-take-all system has brought us to the point where barely half the electorate bothers to vote

Bexar County, with a population of 1,232,000, now has all or part of four Congressional districts within its county lines. Three of the incumbents are Hispanic and two are Republicans. If districts were drawn within the county, Bexar County would get two districts. It could be joined with Travis County, which has a district of its own, and the Hill Country to generate four members of Congress.

Such a regional vote likely would elect a white liberal, two Hispanics and a Republican, roughly the same combination as winner-take-all elections would produce in those districts, but at least Austin Republicans and Hill Country liberals could help elect representatives of their choice.

The same practice could be followed if the remaining 17 or so districts in the state were combined into four or five regional districts. Blacks do not have enough voting strength in any East Texas district to elect a candidate, but they would have a good shot at electing an East Texas member of Congress if four or five East Texas seats were combined into an at-large districts with a proportional vote. And Republicans could elect a representative in South Texas.

History Shows PR Can Work

Proportional representation has precedents in Texas and elsewhere. In the past three years, 22 local jurisdictions in Texas have adopted proportional voting plans, according to the Southwest Voter Research Institute. They include the Abernathy, Andrews, Anson, Bovina, Denver City, Dumas, Friona, Hale Center, Lockhart, Morton, Rotan, Springlake, Stamford and Yoakum school boards and Abernathy, Anton, Earth, Friona, Loving, Morton and Olton city councils, all of which adopted cumulative voting plans, and the Grapeland city council, which adopted a limited voting plan.

Before the Voting Rights Act, Texas elected members of Congress as well as state legislators in urban counties at-large. The state still elects its judges in urban counties at large. Limited voting is used in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Hartford, Connecticut. Illinois legislatures were elected by cumulative voting from 1870 to 1980, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, city council seats are filled by preference voting. Most of the world's democracies use proportional representation.

"It is rather a radical idea, I suppose, as some have seen it, but I think it is something that is being considered as an alternative to the districting that would produce the sort of contortions that are under review in the federal court," said Bob Brischetto, executive director of the Southwest Voter Research Institute. He noted that the U.S. Justice Department has supported the use of proportional representation in resolving local voting rights cases, although Congress would have to approve a change from single-member Congressional districts.

Simply put, conservative whites have always been overrepresented in Congress, the legislature and the courts because the system is stacked against minorities. In a proportional system, an organized minority bloc should be able to break through.

This likely would mix things up and lead to more turnover, since an incumbent who failed to get out his or her vote could be picked off by a sharpshooting challenger. It also would encourage candidates to organize local communities and run positive, issue-oriented campaigns; negative campaigns might undercut support for the targeted candidate but would not necessarily benefit the mudslinger.

The current winner-take-all system has brought us to the point where barely half the electorate bothers to vote. Maybe proportional representation, with the prospect of shaking up Congress, would lure the disenfranchised half back to democracy. At least it is worth a look.

Jim Cullen is an editor at the Texas Observer, an Austin-based bi-weekly where this commentary first appeared on July 22, 1994.

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