Antidote to Legislative Apartheid

April 01, 1994|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON — Remember Lani Guinier?

Remember how conservatives denounced her as a ''quota queen'' after President Clinton nominated her to be his assistant attorney general for civil rights?

Remember how Clinton caved in and withdrew her nomination after deciding that maybe her views were too radical for him, after all?

Well, she has survived. Her misadventure has made her a darling of the speech circuit and her new book, ''The Tyranny of the Majority,'' enables her, at last, to have the public airing of her views that Mr. Clinton's reservations denied her.

Is this a great country or what?

And now it looks like the views her conservative detractors denounced as radical and separatist may come to the rescue of voting-rights advocates looking for some alternative to the extreme racial gerrymandering the Supreme Court rejected last year as an acceptable way to create new black-majority voting districts.

The high court threw out a majority-black district that snakes across North Carolina, no wider than a highway in places, saying it bears an uncomfortable resemblance to legislative ' ''apartheid.''

Black political and civil-rights leaders panicked. After years of slow but steady growth in black political office holders since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many feared the biggest backslide since Reconstruction.

Of the 16 new black members who were elected to Congress in 1992, for example, 13 came from districts that had been redrawn to create black majorities.

And, on the local level, the latest round of redistricting alone has produced as much as a 75 percent increase in black legislators in Mississippi (where black judges more than doubled from 19 to 42) and a 60 percent increase in black legislators in Louisiana, largely with race-based districting, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington-based black-oriented think tank.

But, after examining the bizarre shapes some districts have taken in the pursuit of minority majorities, the Supreme Court decided, in an opinion written by Sandra Day O'Connor, that the rights of whites can be violated in some circumstances by redistricting that is intended to create a majority-black district. It ordered North Carolina to go back and try again, without offering much guidance as to how the task of improving black representation can be done without redrawing the map.

The case, now called Shaw v. Hunt, went to court in North Carolina Monday, and guess what? Attorneys on both sides say they are open to at least one of the alternative voting ideas that President Clinton and Ms. Guinier's other critics called radical.

In fact, contrary to the ''quota queen'' tag, the parties in Shaw v. Hunt like the alternative voting scheme precisely because it can increase black representation without quotas, gerrymandering or the infringement of white rights. It is called ''cumulative voting,'' and it works like this: You lump several candidates together into a much larger geographic district and you give every voter as many votes as there are candidates.

The voter then can give as many of the votes to as many candidates as he or she wishes. If blacks or any other racial, ethnic or interest group want to put all of their votes on the candidates from their group, they can do it.

If it sounds radical, it shouldn't. Cumulative voting is used to elect councils in Peoria, Illinois, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Alamogordo, New Mexico, and several Alabama counties. Voters Illinois called it ''bullet voting'' when they elected the General Assembly this way for more than 100 years to ensure minority-party representatives. ''It even plays in Peoria,'' quips Rob Richie, national director of the Washington-based Center for Voting and Democracy, which is advising the parties in Shaw v. Hunt on alternative voting.

Both sides like it, he says, because ''it offers universal coverage.'' Whereas race-based plans sound like they are deliberately trying to ensure outcomes by race, cumulative voting guarantees opportunity to minority interests without guaranteeing outcomes.

Of course, like any other change in the way members of Congress are elected, it will take a waiver from Congress to make cumulative voting possible for congressional elections in North Carolina or any other state. Congress should take the hint and do it. Unlike race-based redistricting schemes, cumulative voting avoids the dangerous presumption that voters will vote by race. Increasingly ''crossover candidates'' are proving that voters vote by interest, not necessarily by race.

When current Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy ran for Congress in Mississippi, for example, he refused a race-based redistricting scheme, saying he wanted to appeal more equitably to all races. He did, and he won.

Another, slightly more complex plan that Ms. Guinier favors and the center advocates is called ''preference voting.'' It enables voters to rank their choices by preference. The candidates who get the fewest votes are eliminated and their votes are then given to each voter's second choice. National elections are conducted this way in Australia and Ireland.

If American presidents were chosen this way, Ross Perot's votes in 1992 would have gone to his voters' second choices. Had enough of them chosen George Bush (highly likely, judging by polls that show Perot voters to be more Republican than Democrat), Mr. Bush could have won.

Imagine that. George Bush could have won with the help of Perot voters who viewed him as their second choice, despite winning barely a third of the first-choice vote.

Hmmmmm. Could that be why President Clinton thought Ms. Guinier's ideas were too radical?

8, Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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