Racial voting that promotes democracy

November 20, 1996|By Samuel Issacharoff and Richard H. Pildes

THE DECADE-OLD federal policy of clustering blacks and whites into racially designed districts led this fall to a bitter public spectacle. New court decisions forced several black congressional representatives to run in majority-white districts. In the end they were re-elected, but not before much concern that they might lose their seats.

But as this drama played itself out, the South is also experimenting with another, less public solution to the problem of deep-seated racial and political division. And it seems to be working.

Chilton County, Alabama, the self-proclaimed ''Peach Capital of the World,'' is poor even by Alabama standards. Its black residents, 11 percent of the population dispersed in isolated pockets, are poorest of all.

In 1988, a federal court found that the county's blacks had been excluded from local office. The standard solution -- minority districts -- was unworkable because the county's pockets of African Americans are so geographically dispersed.

After much agonizing, white political leaders reluctantly tried something different: cumulative voting. Chilton County's two most important political bodies, the county commission and the board of education, were each expanded to seven members. Every voter was allowed seven votes. He could cast one for each of seven candidates, plump all seven down on one, or choose any option in between.

At first, the shift perplexed many people, including the candidates. Only Bobby Agee, a thoughtful black aspirant for the county commission, immediately grasped the concept and openly asked voters for all seven of their votes. Most of his opponents seemed to believe that, as the editor of the local paper put it, asking for more than one vote per person was ''not the Southern gentleman thing to do.''

The results were dramatic: a long-serving white member of the board of education lost. Mr. Agee won more votes than any other candidate, even though only 1.5 percent of whites cast even a single vote for him. For the first time since Reconstruction, blacks won seats on the county commission and the board of education.

There were also unexpected side effects. Other ''minorities'' started winning. Republicans, scarce in Chilton County local politics, got elected, and, for the first time, a woman won a seat on the board of education. (This parallels a larger pattern: countries with proportional or semi-proportional representation systems average 15 percent women in their parliaments, while democracies with single-member election districts, such as the United States, average less than 6 percent.)

Bobby Agee embodies the hopes that cumulative voting schemes raise. In 1988, he owed his election to black voters. In fact, he was the only candidate to campaign in black areas. In a winner-take-all system, like those used to elect most local governments, he would have been wiped out.

When he first took office, he acknowledged, his fellow commissioners considered him ''the black representative.'' Yet, once in office, Mr. Agee branched out. A white colleague admitted that he proved to be the commission's most educated and talented member.

In the 1992 election, the second under cumulative voting, many white candidates changed their strategies. Realizing that whites would split their votes among white candidates, they turned to blacks as a potential swing constituency. Blacks would vote for Mr. Agree, they reasoned, but perhaps they might cast a vote or two for them as well.

An important axiom

Mr. Agee, re-elected, took on a new role as well: His fellow commissioners elected him chair. His election proved an important axiom about the new system. Some white voters had clearly become comfortable with his presence on the commission.

Far from causing a white backlash, proportional representation appears to have eased racial division. Mr. Agee won twice as many white votes in 1992 as in 1988, and he now gets more phone calls and requests from white constituents than from black ones. His explanation of what has happened sounds almost quaint: people in Chilton County, he reports, are starting to ''get away from race, creed and color'' and are ''look- ing at the ability of the person.''

Proportional representation schemes will be getting the closer look they deserve elsewhere. Last year local officials, desperate to avoid costly and divisive redistricting battles, persuaded the Texas legislature to allow them to replace majority-rule school-board elections with limited and cumulative voting schemes. In North Carolina, after the Supreme Court invalidated the state's black-majority congressional districts, Republicans proposed dividing the state into three parts and electing congressional representatives by cumulative voting from within each area.

Such systems are no panacea. But as it becomes clearer that racial redistricting raises serious constitutional questions, many yearn for an alternative. When cumulative voting was first discussed several years ago, it seemed too radical to contemplate. But in Chilton County, Alabama, this novel strategy for transcending racial division doesn't look so radical after all.

Samuel Issacharoff teaches law at the University of Texas. Richard H. Pildes teaches law at the University of Michigan. This article first appeared in The New Republic.

Pub Date: 11/20/96

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