A Third Choice

By William Raspberry
Friday, December 17, 1999; 
Washington Post Page A41

Colorblind approaches to America's racial inequities, philosophically sound on their face, tend to lock in existing disparity. Race-conscious approaches that mandate special treatment for individuals because of their color leave everyone uncomfortable.

The dilemma exists in everything from prestigious appointments to university admissions but perhaps most clearly in democracy's most basic tenet: the right to cast a vote and have it count.

Think of those highly controversial congressional redistricting cases. There are states with sufficient black numbers to elect two or three members of Congress but without the racial concentrations to make the elections happen "naturally." A colorblind approach would leave two main options: for minority candidates to learn to appeal to the white majorities in their districts or for minority voters to vote for the white candidates whose views most closely reflect their own.

Either option can work here and there--Ed Brooke and Carol Moseley-Braun managed to win Senate seats without a black majority electorate; "progressive" white candidates win the support of black voters. Neither option is likely to be the engine for black political empowerment, though.

But if colorblindness looks better than it is, color-consciousness can be unaesthetic and divisive, even when it works. A North Carolina district was thrown out by the Supreme Court because its shape, drawn to corral an electorally sufficient number of black voters, was, in Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's famous phrase, "too bizarre." North Carolina's redistricting scheme looked awful, even while it succeeded in producing the state's first racially mixed congressional delegation since the turn of the century.

Is there no way out of this new American dilemma?

Well, when it comes to elections, maybe there is.

The Conecuh County Democratic Committee in Alabama isn't exactly the U.S. Congress, but it did have an interesting problem: enough black voters to elect a member to the committee but insufficient geographic concentration to make their vote fully effective.

The solution? An approach called "limited voting" in which voters are required to cast fewer votes than the number of seats to be filled.

"Remarkably," says Jerome Gray, who recounts the 1982 episode in a new booklet on alternative voting schemes in Alabama, "this first known application of limited voting in Alabama went over extremely well. There was virtually no local resistance to the plan, despite the fact that the local Democratic Party leadership and the probate judge had made it extremely difficult for blacks to be elected to this committee in the past. As a result of the change, blacks went from making up less than 10 percent of the county committee to over 40 percent."

Alabama's Chilton County had never had a black member of its seven-member county commission until Bobby Agee was elected in 1988 under a "cumulative voting" scheme. Unlike limited voting, cumulative voting gives each voter one vote for every vacancy to be filled but allows those votes to be cast for as few candidates as the voter wishes. Under the old arrangement, the county's 11 percent black population was essentially disfranchised. But with each black voter able to cast up to seven votes for a single black candidate, Agee was elected.

He is still on the commission and was recently elected by his white colleagues to his fifth term as commission chair.

At least 32 different governing bodies in Alabama--most of them quite small--now use some alternative voting device which, though theoretically race neutral, has the effect of making possible the election of black candidates.

Moreover, according to the Maryland-based Center for Voting and Democracy, through which Jerome Gray's pamphlet is available, the alternative schemes have made possible the election of members of two other seriously underrepresented groups: Republicans and women.

There may be reasons (besides resistance to novelty) why some of the alternatives couldn't be used in big-city or statewide elections, but I can't think what they might be. The heartening thing for me is that they represent a healthy solution to the race-conscious/colorblind dilemma--at least for elections.

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