Preference Voting is Fairer

October 10, 1994|By EDWARD STILL

Within the last two months, federal courts in Georgia, Louisiana and Texas have struck down congressional district plans on the grounds that each state legislature had intentionally created bizarrely shaped districts with black voting majorities.

Each of these cases has now been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has stayed the decisions so that this fall's congressional elections can go forward without redistricting.

This flurry of suits grew out of a Supreme Court decision a year ago, Shaw vs. Reno, in which the court held that North Carolina voters could sue if the state legislature had ''segregated'' voters by creating districts with black majorities.

The irony of labeling a district with a 53-47 black-white split as ''segregated'' seems to have escaped the court. However, the federal district court hearing the Shaw case -- after it was sent back for trial by the Supreme Court -- held that North Carolina had non-racial reasons for drawing the 12th Congressional District as a 165-mile long snake with a few lumps.

We are now at a turning point. Either minority representation in Congress will decrease as conservative judges dismantle the congressional district plans adopted by state legislatures, or we can adopt a non-districted system of elections that still allows minorities to elect candidates of their choice.

For 150 years nearly all congressional elections in the United States have been from single-member districts. Congress adopted single-member districts in 1842 to avoid the problem of one political party sweeping the entire delegation of a state and leaving the minority party without a seat.

After dropping the requirement in 1929, Congress reinstated it in 1967, in part to protect Southern blacks in the wake of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Single-member districts succeed in providing a diversity of representation only if the districts have different groups as the majority in each district. For example, if all the districts in a state were 55 percent Democratic and 45 percent Republican, we would not expect the Republicans to win any seats.

The situation is much the same for racial minorities. In much of theUnited States, especially the South, blacks cannot win in white-majority districts. Blacks represent only three white-majority congressional districts in the country.

There is a clash of ideals here. On the one hand, most white Americans do not oppose having blacks and Hispanics elected to Congress (if they represent someone else).

On the other, the idea that only members of a particular racial or ethnic group can win a district is galling to most Americans. If we think only in terms of single-member district elections, these ideals will seem inconsistent.

Two of the judges in the Georgia congressional case said, ''The time has come to contemplate more innovative means of ensuring minority representation in democratic institutions.''

Preference voting is such an innovative means to meet both goals. Preference voting uses multi-member districts but allows voters to cast votes so that two or more groups of significant size will elect representatives. In a three-member district, for example, any group larger than 25 percent of voters can help elect someone.

Preference voting is used to elect the city council of Cambridge, Mass., the Senate of Australia and the Dail (parliament) of Ireland.

It works quite simply: Each voter marks his or her ballot to show a first choice, second choice and so on for as many choices as desired. Each ballot is counted for the first choice marked on it, but may be transferred in accord with simple rules.

Any ballots cast for a candidate who cannot win are redistributed to the next choice marked on the ballot. Similarly, the extra votes cast for a candidate who has more votes than necessary to be elected will be redistributed to the next choice marked on each extra ballot.

Voters will be able to group themselves into ''voluntary constituencies'' rather than geographic ones. Nearly all voters will help elect candidates representing their views without regard to where they live within the multi-member district.

In Shaw vs. Reno, the Supreme Court said, ''When a district obviously is created solely to effectuate the perceived common interests of one racial group, elected officials are more likely to believe that their primary obligation is to represent only the members of that group, rather than their constituency as a whole.''

Preference voting avoids this problem. Each member of Congress would know that he or she represented a group supporting that member, but the group would not be defined by race or ethnic group or the lines drawn by politicians or judges.

Nothing in the Constitution prevents the adoption of preference voting. All that stands in our way is the self-interest of members of Congress who prefer single-member districts drawn to give most of them ''safe'' seats. Incumbent protection should not stand in the way of fair representation for all Americans.

Edward Still is a civil rights lawyer in Birmingham, Ala., and a director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a nationwide educational organization that researches and distributes information on electoral systems that promote voter participation and representation.

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