A Better Way to Put More Minorities in Congress

Representation with multimember districts can do the job without racial gerrymandering

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Recently a divided US Supreme Court invalidated five minority congressional districts - two in North Carolina and three in Texas - ruling that the use of race as a predominant factor in drawing district lines violated the Constitution.

This is not the first time that the high court has thrown out a majority-minority district. Last June the justices invalidated the Georgia congressional district of black Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D). The court's rulings in recent years have rolled back 30 years of voting-rights litigation and activism, casting a long shadow on the constitutionality of dozens of legislative districts, from the county to the congressional level, that were designed to comply with the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Critics of the act contend that, in recent years, several black politicians have been elected from majority-white electorates, such as Sen. Carol Mosley Braun (D), former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder (D), Rep. Garry Franks (R) of Connecticut, and the mayors of New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and Denver.

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But a recent book, "Quiet Revolution in the South," convincingly demonstrates that, absent race-conscious gerrymandering, black political representation in the South could be nearly invisible. Cities with mixed elections - with both at-large and individual districts - provide an ideal test for the role of "safe" districts. In Southern cities whose black population was 30 to 50 percent, black candidates won 41 percent of the districted seats but only 4 percent of the at-large ones. In cites with 10 to 30 percent black population, blacks won 23 percent of districted seats but only 2 percent of the at-large ones. In Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina, no black official was elected to a city council from an at-large seat in any majority-white city. No black has ever been elected to Congress from the South in a majority-white district. The two North Carolina districts that were thrown out elected the first black representatives from North Carolina this century. In the face of such racially polarized voting, the absence of any "safe" minority districts will translate directly into the absence of black officeholders.

Winner takes all

In the impassioned heat of the debate on affirmative action, what is lost is the fact that racial gerrymandering is the fault of a majoritarian "winner take all" voting system that routinely excludes minority candidates - racial, political or otherwise - that often cannot win a majority of votes by virtue of being a minority. This has resulted in dogged efforts for the past 30 years to graft onto a faulty voting system a hodgepodge of gerrymandered districts to make up for that inherent inequality.

By contrast, the example of South Africa is instructive. As the South Africans dismantled apartheid, they too had to wrestle with the vexing problems of a multiracial democracy. Compared with the Unites States, the racial demographics of South Africa are almost exactly reversed. The challenge of South Africa's black majority was how to share power with its white minority and other minorities in a way that was fair and equitable. South Africa opted for a form of a proportional representation, the preferred voting system in most democracies.

South Africa's multiseat districts

South Africa's proportional system elects legislative seats from multimember districts, rather than the US-style single-seat districts. For instance, in a 10-seat district if a party wins 40 percent of the popular vote it gets four seats, 20 percent wins two seats, and so on. This opens the door to racial and political minorities, to more parties, and to independent candidates. In South Africa's first election, the white minority won its fair share of seats without a single gerrymandered district. Moreover, the main parties reached out to voters of both races by running multiracial slates of candidates. Rather than polarize the nation along racial lines, the election helped unify a fragile democracy.

Proportional representation (PR) systems have been proposed in the United States by law professor Lani Guinier, Congresswoman McKinney, and others, as a fair and race-neutral method of remedying the tensions of racial representation. McKinney has introduced a bill, HR 2545, that would allow states the option of electing their congressional delegations by proportional representation. If voting-rights proponents switch strategies to one of PR, they will find allies in those who would also greatly benefit from it: women, political independents, and minority parties of all political stripes, as well as many of the 64 percent who did not vote in the 1994 congressional elections.

Following these Supreme Court rulings, the voting-rights community will be circling the wagons to formulate its strategy. Proportional representation, which requires no constitutional amendment, only changes in applicable laws, ought to be near the top of the list. The process of converting to PR may seem daunting, but not nearly so much as wandering forever in the increasingly barren wasteland of two-party "winner take all" politics, as racial minorities join the ranks of women and political minorities standing on the sidelines.

* Steven Hill, based in San Francisco, is the West Coast director of the Center for Voting and Democracy.

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