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How to Bind the Nation

By Steven Hill
Published April 2nd 1998
"This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York islands." -- Woody Guthrie

President Clinton's panel on race relations has swept across the country and finally arrived in California. California is a most appropriate state for such a discussion, being home to a smorgasbord of 30 million Latinos, Asians, blacks, whites, immigrants, natives and everything in between. California has given us Propositions 187 and 209, two bitterly contested rollbacks of immigration rights and affirmative action, as well as the Rodney King riots and the O.J. trials.

How will so much diversity ever get along?

An important corollary to this question is this: how will all that diversity ever win fair representation in the legislatures? The two questions are related, because if voters don't feel represented, it's not likely they'll feel welcome either.

The irony of the type of democracy used in California and the rest of the U.S. is that the single representative elected to each district seat is supposed to represent everyone residing within that district.  There persists this odd notion that an elected official "represents" you just because they occupy the district seat, even if you didn't vote for them and they are diametrically opposed to your point of view.  Yet there are districts where a white Christian Republican lives next door to a Latino single mom Democrat who lives next door to a Korean small businessman who lives next door to a duplex where a gay Reform Party computer programmer is rooming with a black Green environmentalist, etc., etc., ad infinitum.

Asking a single representative to straddle the ideological divide between so many perspectives is becoming increasingly impossible.  The result is that millions of voters from different races and partisan perspectives have to compete against each other in a zero-sum game for representation -- if I win representation, that means you don't win.

This dynamic exacerbates racial tensions in several ways. In most districts, minorities don't win representation because they need an unattainable plurality or majority to win. The U.S. Senate, which competes with Britain's House of Lords as the most unrepresentative body among western democracies, has exactly one black and no Latino Senators.

Historically, we've tried to remedy such inequality by gerrymandering a certain number of districts so that a particular minority group is made into the majority. But this can have the effect of excluding other racial minorities within that district. What's more, districts drawn for racial representation are becoming increasingly risky, as they have come under judicial fire with some racial districts being tossed out by the courts.

Also, the inability of single-seat districts to fairly represent diversity within the districts exacerbates tensions between urban and suburban areas. Republicans have given up trying to win in most cities, which are racially-mixed and usually Democratic strongholds. Republicans tend to concentrate instead on the white suburbs. This polarization has far-reaching ramifications for cities since Republican legislatures have little to gain politically by supporting urban policy.  Not surprisingly, a number of states are being sued over spending discrepancies in school funding between urban and suburban areas.

The national dialogue on race must move beyond conversation to identify real-world institutional barriers that perpetuate and exacerbate the racial divide. Certainly the continued use of single-seat "winner take all" districts is one such barrier. Fortunately, other options exist.

>From 1870 to 1980, Illinois used cumulative voting in three-seat districts to elect its lower house. If 25 percent of voters supported only one candidate, that candidate was sure to win, giving minority voters a chance to win representation. This relatively minor modification of winner-take-all rules had a profound impact on Illinois politics. Nearly every district, even Chicago's districts, had two-party representation of both Republicans and Democrats, fostering bipartisan support for urban policy and giving voters more choice, better representation and creating more competition. In 1995 the Chicago Tribune editorialized in support of cumulative voting's return, writing that "Many partisans and political independents have looked back wistfully at the era of cumulative voting. They acknowledge that it produced some of the best and brightest in Illinois politics."

Even more effective would be to convert the U.S.-style "winner take all" voting system to a multi-seat proportional representation system. South Africa followed this example in its post-apartheid era. In their first multiracial election, white and black ethnic minorities and the black majority won their fair share of seats without a single gerrymandered district. Moreover, the main parties reached out to voters of both races by running multiracial slates of candidates. Rather than polarize the nation along racial lines, the proportional election helped unify a fragile democracy.

President Clinton's panel on race relations ought to question seriously this reliance on "winner take all" single-seat districts.  It's an antiquated 18th century method that just isn't capable of serving the needs of a multi-racial, multi-partisan democracy, hurtling toward the 21st century. Giving representation to as many voters as possible must be a prerequisite to binding the nation. Leaders as diverse as Clarence Thomas, Kevin Phillips, Eleanor Smeal and Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney have expressed an interest in exploring new approaches. It's long overdue, and now is the time.  


Steven Hill is the West Coast Director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonprofit organization based in Washington DC that educates about voting systems.