Consensus Requires Fair Representation

By David Moon
Published June 26th 2006 in Progressive Populist
Against the backdrop of nationwide demonstrations, student walkouts and an immigrant work stoppage, voters in Herndon, Virginia drew national attention by tossing out an incumbent mayor and two members of the six-member town council. They chose four new members, all opposed to a publicly financed center for immigrant day laborers set up by the outgoing government.

The elections have been viewed as an indicator of the national mood about immigration. But should they be? Even though the council went from a 5-2 majority in favor of the day labor center to 6-1 against, the town in fact was closely divided. The shift had less to do with the voters than the town's antiquated winner-take-all election system, one that exists in the many cities in the United States. This system makes it harder for communities to achieve consensus policy.

In Herndon, all the candidates run at-large, with every voter having five votes for council and one vote for mayor. Under this winner-take-all, at-large election system, a demographic making up just over 50 percent of voters can claim 100 percent of contested seats.

That's nearly what happened in Herndon. The vote between pro-day laborer center incumbents and anti-center challengers almost perfectly mirrored that of the mayoral race. Anti-center mayoral challenger DeBenedittis beat the incumbent with just over 52 percent of votes. Likewise, the two lowest challengers beat pro-center incumbents with some 52 percent. Had a sixth anti-center challenger run, lone pro-center incumbent Reece likely would have joined his peers in defeat. Barely more than half of voters would have swept all six seats.

These distorted results hardly reflect the complexity of the debate in Herndon, or any town that faces contentious issues. There’s always value in different views winning a voice.

To address this distorting effect, some suggest switching to a system of wards or single-member districts. Federal courts have often struck down winner-take-all, at-large election systems in numerous jurisdictions nationwide because they can block candidates of color from winning seats, and typically have settled cases with wards.  But as Republicans in Massachusetts’s congressional races know, wards don't necessarily address the winner-take-all dynamic at the root of the problem. In Herndon, for example, voters supportive of the day labor site weren’t necessarily concentrated geographically in one part of town.

An increasingly common alternative is to adopt a form of proportional voting, already used widely in Texas and Alabama. Under proportional voting for a six member Council, about every sixth of voters  would be able to elect one member. These systems let councils retain their citywide focus, which is a benefit of at-large systems, while providing a fair share of representation to minorities – political, racial, or ideological.

Winner-take-all systems require a plurality to win; candidates and voters have to be on either side of the divide. The proportional option increases space for perspectives from left, center and right. For example, a candidate could oppose illegal immigration, yet support reasonable day labor opportunities for legal immigrants, and still stand a chance at the polls.

Under proportional voting, anti-immigrant representatives would have won a majority, but pro-immigrant candidates would have won at least one additional seat – and another candidate might have won with more nuanced positions. Sentiment on the resulting Council would have better mirrored voters' sentiment, and perhaps just as importantly, policy discussion would have been more balanced.

There are proportional systems already used in the United States that are ideal for local, nonpartisan elections like those in Herndon. Cities with proportional systems range from Hartford, Connecticut to Amarillo, Texas, Cambridge, Massachusetts and the quintessential heartland city of Peoria, Illinois.  

Winner-take-all elections have exaggerated the anti-immigrant tide in Herndon, putting in jeopardy the survival of any kind of day labor center that many voters support. Even so, anti-center advocates should consider whether they might be the victims next time. Subsequent elections might lead to a complete reversal of this position, resulting in a schizophrenic swing of policy tied to small shifts in votes.

Even more worrisome is the fact that this problem is not confined to immigration issues, but to all important matters facing cities like school funding and balancing new development. If we are going to deal with the ever-more-complex issues of our times with thoughtfulness and consideration, we need to first think about how to address the basic electoral mechanisms that drive our democracy. Herndon will not be the last policy misfire we see in America stemming from broken elections.