Want political competition?
Create multi-member legislative districts, allow each voter just 1 vote

By Lee Mortimer
Published November 21st 2006 in Charlotte Observer

From Lee Mortimer of Durham, a long-time election reform advocate who served on the Election Laws Review Commission created in 1993 by the N.C. General Assembly:

Despite anticipation about a "close election" between Democrats and Republicans for control of Congress, only a small fraction of voters made that decision for the rest of us. That's because only about 10 percent of elections to the U.S. House of Representatives and the N.C. General Assembly offer voters a real contest.

There's been a flurry of interest in bringing integrity to how districts are drawn for legislative and congressional elections. Incumbents of both parties have long manipulated redistricting to shield themselves from the voters.

A politically diverse group, the Coalition for Lobby and Government Reform, is calling for an independent redistricting commission to restore competition. It's a step in the right direction, but by itself, can't make elections competitive. As long as the commission can only draw single-member districts, elections will be neither competitive nor provide fair representation.

The problem with electing only one person per district is that up to 49 percent of voters (and more in a three-way race) who don't vote for the winning candidate end up with a "representative" they voted against.

The commission's mandate: Draw districts using politically neutral criteria and geographic communities of interest. But that won't assure competition. Most communities are politically homogenous, so the resulting districts would likely favor the incumbent party. In most cases, they would be no more competitive than districts gerrymandered to protect incumbents.

The only way to make single-member districts competitive would be to balance them with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, a kind of reverse gerrymander. But they would not be geographically compact and would maximize the number of voters who feel unrepresented.

A better solution would be for the commission to expand districts to elect three members and allow each voter to cast one vote. This "limited voting" method would assure that the majority and the minority could elect a preferred candidate. Three Republican and three Democratic contenders, plus an independent thrown in, would generate real competition for three seats.

Limited voting is already used to resolve voting rights disputes in several North Carolina communities. It would assure fair representation for racial minorities. Each three-member district would likely elect two Democrats and one Republican, or vice-versa.

The political adoption could be facilitated by leaving questions of district size and voting method to a redistricting commission. The legislature might also set up a pilot limited voting project. That could be as simple as combining three existing single-member districts into one three-member district. The fact that incumbents would be appealing to voters in the same geographic area who would still cast one vote in the election could ease the qualms of legislators who have to approve the change.