IN the last day of its 1993 term a closely-divided United States Supreme Court raised the issue of reverse discrimination in a voting-rights case. The high court objected to the configuration of two North Carolina congressional districts that clearly had been drawn to assure the election of black candidates in a state where 22 percent of the current population is black, but which had not elected a black to its 12-member congressional delegation since Reconstruction. Writing for the majority in a 5-to-4 d ecision, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a Reagan appointee, found herself at odds with Justice David Souter, a Bush appointee who issued one of the four dissents.
Justice O'Connor used such terms as "bizarre" and "political apartheid" to describe the two districts, one of which was 160 miles long and at times only the width of the corridor of the interstate highway that snaked through it from Charlotte to Durham. The majority found that the district may have violated the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, as the plaintiffs contended, and so was open to challenge. Although race-conscious redistricting plans are not impermissible p er se, this case was clearly one of "racial gerrymandering." Voters were classified solely on the basis of race, ignoring other relevant factors like geographical and political boundaries. Justice O'Connor wrote that such racial classifications are "by their very nature odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality."
Since departing Justice Byron White was one of the dissenters, the court apparently will continue to have a majority against the so-called racial gerrymander. This could jeopardize the current districting plans of a number of states, notably New York, California, Texas, Illinois, Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana.
For example, northern Florida has a district that has been described as "resembling a racoon that had been run over by an 18-wheeler." It runs through 14 widely-separated counties. Two other districts in the state that were created in order to elect black representatives follow the pattern that Justice O'Connor found constitutionally objectionable; they wind in snake-like fashion through agricultural areas, financial centers, and manufacturing areas, until they have collected enough enclaves of black nei ghborhoods.
The issue involved goes far deeper than the fact that the lack of compactness in districts can make a state reapportionment map look like a Rorschach ink-blot test. Yes, blacks now hold 39 of 435 seats in the US House. But with less than 10 percent of the membership they still confront a daunting task in representing the needs and aspirations of millions of African-Americans on a national level - in part because of the race-conscious districting designed to increase their political power. The irony is th at when creating the maximum number of representatives in Congress with virtually no black constituents, these members are far more likely to be, if not indifferent, certainly far less sensitive on a day-to-day basis to the needs of minority blacks.
Fortunately, there is a better way of addressing this basic problem than redrawing lines on a map. Most Western democracies today use proportional representation voting systems. The US is one of the handful of former British colonies like Canada, New Zealand, and India that cling to a "plurality" winner-take-all system of voting in single-member districts. And New Zealanders likely will vote to adopt a proportional representation (PR) this fall, while both Britain and Canada are presently seriously debat ing PR's merits.
Our winner-take-all system inevitably causes the "balkanization" (a term used by Justice O'Connor) of the electorate because it forces representation based on geography - where you live - rather than what you think. Millions of voters find themselves "represented" by someone they voted against and are effectively disenfranchised because our system can waste 49 percent of votes (all those who vote for a losing candidate) in a two candidate race and 66 percent in a three-person race!
PR would eliminate gerrymandering and reduce wasted votes through creating multicandidate House districts where seats are distributed in proportion to the votes cast for the competing parties or candidates. As clearly authorized by the US Constitution, Congress could institute one of the many PR systems through a national election law changing how states elect their candidates; there would be no need for a protracted campaign to pass a constitutional amendment. If Congress does not act, individual states
could adopt PR for their members of Congress and state legislatures.
John Stuart Mill long ago wrote that the "first principle of democracy is representation in proportion to numbers." The Encyclopedia Britannica - never accused of partisan leanings - summed it up like this: "The case for PR is fundamentally the same as that for representative democracy. Only if an assembly represents the full diversity of opinion within a nation can its decisions be regarded as the decisions of the nation itself."
In the aftermath of last week's Supreme Court decision that undercuts attempts to increase minority representation within the confines of our winner-take-all system, the time is ripe for a full, free, and informed debate on our voting system and how it could be improved in ways that would more perfectly express the will of the people - all people.