The Supreme Court, Racial Politics and the Right to Vote

An American University Forum on the Future of the Voting Rights Act

        Following are additional excerpts from the American University forum on voting rights.

        • Frank Parker: I am sympathetic with proportional representation, or "PR," systems, and I think that most of us here are. But I want to list some disadvantages of PR systems and some problems I have. I don't think they're required by the Voting Rights Act, but in many cases they are a good idea....
        I think the debate over PR highlights the public choices that are available today. And Shaw v. Reno brings in great emphasis these are the choices available. First, let's assume that you think that minority representation is desirable, it's desirable to have black people and Hispanics in Congress. And fairness in representation as a goal as well.
        So that means you have two choices: You can go with single-member district plans, some of which may result in oddly-shaped districts, but this is a cost of having minority representation, having fairness in the electoral process. If you don't like that, the other choice available is PR voting systems. But it seems to me if we are going to have fair levels of minority representation, it has to be one or the other. And if we do away with both of them, then the goal of fairness for minorities and representation is defeated.
        Frank Parker is professor at the District of Columbia School of Law. Previously, he directed the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law after litigating in the Lawyers' Committee Mississippi office from 1968 to 1981. He has published widely on voting rights.

        • Donald Verrilli, Jr.: One thing that has struck me about this debate is that either way you go -- single-member districting or some form of a proportional representation system -- each approach to vindicating minority voting rights has its own inexorable logic.
        If you stay within geographic districting and you want to maximize your efforts to ensure fairness to minorities in the electoral process, you push the concept of geography further and further and further. But if you go in the other direction and use proportional representation systems, particularly if you start conceiving of using them on a national scale, well, are we going to stop electing Members of the House of Representatives by state, for example, because why should those territorial constraints matter anymore?
        .... So the odds are that whichever way you go, you are going to be making pragmatic compromises that take our objectives, which are laudable objectives, and take our traditions, which embody certain political theory values that are weighty and need to be considered, and you have got to work them out. I don't think you solve that problem by saying, ‘Well, proportional representation versus single-member districts.’ That is not to say there aren't times when proportional representation schemes are very effective remedies for particular problems.
        Donald Verrilli specializes in Supreme Court practices, constitutional law and voting rights issues. He represented the State of Florida in Johnson v. DeGrandy.
        • David Kairys: What this leads to, for me, is a need, in the voting context as well as in the voting rights context, to emphasize this revitalization of democracy. The issue is on the agenda across the political spectrum. It has been effectively taken over or diverted by the term limit question. We are in a very conservative period. There is a conservative agenda in this period that tends to swallow up and divert such vital issues. Discontent about the political process has so far been effectively channeled into this term limit issue.
        But there is a range of democratic reforms which we could be working on, and we could coalesce with these voting rights issues: proportional representation; elimination of the role of money in elections; media access for every candidate in limited equal amounts; elimination of the barriers to voting; elimination also of ballot access barriers.
        David Kairys is a professor at the Temple University School of Law and has litigated some of the leading civil rights cases over the past two decades. He is author of With Liberty and Justice for Some: Critique of the Conservative Supreme Court (New Press, 1993).

Table of Contents
Chapter Five