"These Reforms Will Get Voters To the Polls"

By Jamin B. Raskin and Rob Richie
Washington Post, Outlook Sunday, 

September 13, 1998; Page C 8

If the rest of America is any barometer, a record low number of voters will turn out for the Sept. 15 primaries in Maryland and the District. Many people want to revitalize politics by reforming campaign finance, but it may be time to change our election systems as well. Consider:

Cumulative voting for the Maryland legislature.

Marylanders vote for state representatives only once every four years, but even so most people don't bother going to the polls. Voting can seem superfluous when many districts are so reliably Democratic or Republican and the same three incumbents are returned to office by huge margins each election.

To inject new life into these lethargic legislative elections, Maryland could adopt cumulative voting. Under this system, voters can divide their three votes in any way they choose, giving two votes to one candidate and one to another, for example, or giving all three votes to a single candidate.

When this voting innovation was used in Illinois, it had a profound impact on state politics. Political minorities no longer were shut out. Although the state has abandoned this system, many leading Illinois politicians believe cumulative voting produced better politics and more creative legislation.

Instant runoffs in the District.

Under the District's current voting system, whoever gets the most votes wins, no matter how far the candidate might be from having a majority of the votes. In a 1995 special election, for example, Edie Whittington won the Ward 8 council race by one vote, having collected fewer than 15 percent of the votes cast.

To ensure majority support, the District should consider instant runoffs. Under this system, if no candidate wins a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest number of first choices is eliminated, and his or her ballots are redistributed to the second-choice candidate marked on those ballots. This process continues until one candidate reaches a majority.

While it sounds complicated, it's not. Cambridge, Mass., uses a similar system, and once the ballots are loaded into the computer, a winner can be determined in a few seconds. The nations that lead the world in voter participation use this system.

Instant runoffs not only would certify majority winners but would place a premium on broad political appeals. This more sophisticated method of tallying votes would discourage negative campaigns and promote candidacies with greater vision.

Another possible voting reform for the District is suggested by the lawsuit brought against the provision in the home rule charter that limits any political party to holding two of the four at-large seats on the D.C. Council. A less artificial way of guaranteeing representation of political minorities, such as the Statehood Party, would be to adopt proportional voting for at-large seats. This could be accomplished through cumulative voting or by the plan discussed below.

Proportional voting in Virginia.

Early this year, Virginia passed a new congressional redistricting after a federal court ruled that U.S. Rep. Robert Scott's district was an unlawful "racial gerrymander."

Judicial anxiety over a district drawn to facilitate the first black majority in Virginia this century was misplaced, given the general lack of choice afforded to Virginians by the state's districting. Because of the partisan gerrymandering that controls Virginia's districts, congressional winners in 1996 averaged a stunning 72 percent of the votes.

The new districts have done nothing to increase competition; only four of 11 incumbents face even token opposition this year. With no statewide race and no state legislative elections, Virginia's voter turnout will be minuscule.

If federal law requiring single-member House districts were lifted, Virginia could explore a system of proportional representation that would expand the voting rights of political minorities.

Ireland's "choice" voting system is an excellent example. There, voters rank candidates in order of choice, but because representatives are elected in multi-seat districts, winning requires only a share of the vote proportionate to the number of district representatives. Smaller parties win a fair number of seats this way. This choice method has resulted in Ireland enjoying a competitive two-party system in which the two major parties vie not only against one another but against new parties.

Virginia could use such choice voting by fashioning two three-seat districts and a five-seat district. Lines of geography then no longer would double as political party lines, perhaps reducing sectional and geographic animosity.

Changes in voting systems won't come easy. Incumbents love winner-take-all, single-member-district elections because they are so easily gerrymandered. But democracy is suffering because elected officials are picking their voters on redistricting day instead of voters picking their officials on Election Day. It's something to keep in mind on Tuesday.


-- Jamin B. Raskin and Rob Richie are, respectively, professor of constitutional law at American University, and executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy.

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