IN rejecting Rep. Cynthia McKinney's congressional district as a ''racial gerrymander'' in September 1994, two federal judges made a remarkable statement in their majority opinion: ''The time has come to contemplate more innovative means of ensuring minority representation in democratic institutions... Georgia's [legislature] owes its citizens new solutions.''
Now these same judges have imposed a new plan on Georgia that eliminates two of the state's three congressional districts with majorities of black voters. In a state that is more than one-quarter black, the number of blacks in the 13-member congressional delegation quite possibly will be reduced from three to one, as was true in the 1980s. With challenges to majority-minority congressional districts under way in New York, Illinois, Florida, Virginia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Texas, the Georgia ruling opens the floodgates to changes in numerous congressional districts that would result in black and Latino representatives being replaced by whites.
The Georgia plan hardly suggests an ''innovative'' and ''new'' approach to minority representation, but then again, a 1967 law mandating that states use single-seat congressional districts prevented the judges from pursuing the only truly innovative approach: proportional-voting systems, as used in most of the world's established democracies and in many local elections in the United States.
Systems with multiseat districts (areas with more than one representative) can use various methods, including letting people vote for several candidates, concentrate several votes on one, or rank their preferences. These proportional systems ensure that most voters have a vote that contributes to the election of a candidate. In a five-seat district, the top five candidates would win, so 20 percent of like-minded voters are sure to elect one representative, 51 percent to elect three.
The Center for Voting and Democracy has drafted a plan for Georgia that creates three multiseat districts. It preserves all county lines, provides black voters with a realistic opportunity to help elect three candidates of their choice, and ensures that 70 percent of Georgians would directly elect a representative.
This last fact demonstrates how proportional-voting systems could be the foundation of a new voters' rights movement in which black and ethnic minorities would join with the many millions of discontented white voters to establish a lasting foundation for fair representation of those in the majority and the minority. Indeed, the irony of the political and judicial backlash against ''voting rights'' as now defined is that over 60 percent of eligible voters did not participate in the 1994 congressional elections; over 60 percent of Americans would welcome a viable third party to contest all levels of elections; and over 70 percent disapprove of how Congress is handling its job.
Part of this frustration stems from the fact that because of single-seat districts, most Americans do not experience congressional elections as a two-party system, let alone the multiparty system a majority wants. Rather, most districts simply are not competitive. We are taught the fiction that all elections are up for grabs, but in 1994 2 out of 3 House races were won by landslides of over 20 percent. The fewer than 1 in 7 seats that changed parties was the biggest such change in over 40 years.
This lack of competition is hardly an accident. The challenges to black-majority districts have forced district drawers in several states to explain the extreme steps taken to protect incumbents - steps that increased census data and computer technology make all the more precise. The Texas attorney general recently told the Supreme Court that incumbent protection was far more the cause of ''bizarre'' district shapes than racial factors, while Texas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (R) testified last year, ''[The incumbents] have practically drawn their own districts. Not practically. They have.'' Indeed, after the Texas redistricting in 1992, 26 of 27 incumbents were reelected. The three ''open'' seats went to state legislators who drew their districts, and only 1 of 30 races was closer than 10 percent.
Yet voting-rights advocates are forced to defend such gross distortions of the democratic process when they result in majority-minority districts. Instead, by taking what admittedly is a political gamble to support voters' rights through proportional-voting systems, they could seize the moral high ground and find political allies among the majority of voters fed up with their lack of choices in congressional elections. If successful, they would gain a lasting foundation for minority voting rights in a manner analogous to the way in which the universal Social Security coverage better secures the protection of the elderly poor. Giving all voters more credible choices would be far more popular than accepting the confines of an unfair and undemocratic electoral system in which line-drawers have more influence than voters.
Representative McKinney (D) has already taken this bold step. She introduced House Resolution 2545, the Voters' Choice Act, to amend the 1967 statute that mandates single-seat districts, restoring states' power to adopt proportional systems. Those who join McKinney in urging the US to consider proportional systems are impressively diverse, including Alvin Toffler, Ralph Nader, Kevin Philips, Lani Guinier, and the directors of US Term Limits and the National Women's Political Caucus.
Proportional-voting systems could help us build a stronger democracy. They could help avoid political gerrymandering and other methods that work at cross-purposes to the broader goal of national unity constructed on the base of a participatory democracy. They would be predicated more on what voters think and less on political geography and where they happen to live. This, I firmly believe, is the kind of true political reform that America needs.