How Proportional Representation Can Empower Minorities and the Poor

Robert Richie, Douglas Amy, and Frederick McBride          

This article was originally entitled "New Means of Political Empowerment:  Proportional Voting," and appeared in the November/December 2000 newsletter of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council.

In May 2000, the citizens of Amarillo, Texas, filled four seats on its school board by cumulative voting. No black or Latino candidate had been elected to Amarillo’s seven-member school board in more than two decades, despite Latinos and African-Americans making up more than 20% of the city’s population and an even larger share of the student population. Instituted to settle a voting rights lawsuit, cumulative voting had an immediate impact: a black candidate and Latino candidate won seats with strong support in their communities; voter turnout increased four times over the most recent school board election; and all parties in the voting rights settlement expressed satisfaction with the new system.

That a generally conservative city like Amarillo would adopt cumulative voting is only one example of how proportional and semi-proportional voting systems in recent years have moved from being “controversial” to credible alternatives for political empowerment. On their own merits and as a strategic response to Supreme Court rulings that hinder creation of district boundaries to provide for increased representation of racial minorities, these voting methods—specifically, choice voting, cumulative voting and limited voting (see accompanying box)—are increasingly recognized as a means to increase minority representation in local, state and even federal elections.

Proportional representation (PR) creates new avenues of political power for people of color and the poor, two groups traditionally denied fair access to power in this country. Despite making up a quarter of the U.S. population, African-Americans and Latinos (as of 2000) hold less than 10 % of the country’s elected offices and not a single governorship or U.S. Senate seat. Imagine for a moment how different it would be if the Senate had 25 African-Americans and Latinos instead of none. They would make up an important voting bloc, and their very presence on committees and as colleagues on the Senate floor would be a powerful reminder of the political concerns of people of color. No longer would it be easy to put these issues on the back-burner, as so often happens today.

Adopting PR to elect the U.S. Senate would require constitutional change, but all other legislative bodies in the United States—including the House of Representatives—could be elected by PR without touching the Constitution. What prevents such fantasies of fair representation from more often becoming a reality is our continued adherence to an election principle—winner-take-all—that is inherently unjust and undemocratic. Winner-take-all elections, whether in single-member districts or for at-large positions, require winning candidates to attract a majority or substantial plurality of the vote. By definition, candidates representing political minorities have great difficulty amassing this large a share of votes, and so stand little chance of being elected. Thus, under our current system, racial minorities and the poor have the right to vote, but are often denied the equally fundamental right to representation. This systematic disempowerment of minorities and the poor is an inevitable result of winner-take-all systems.

Proportional representation is designed to remedy these electoral injustices. It ensures that any grouping of like-minded people—minorities and majorities—gets a fair share of power and representation in our legislative bodies, whereas our current winner-take-all principle can award 100 % of the representation to a 50.1 % majority. If black voters comprise 20 % of the vote in a racially polarized county, they can elect at least one of the five seats—rather than be shut out, as they would be in a traditional at-large election or in a single-member district plan that dispersed their vote across several districts.

Versions of proportional representation are used in most well-established democracies. In 1999, there were 36 democracies with a high Freedom House human rights rating and a population over two million. Of these, only two—the U.S. and Canada—used exclusively winner-take-all elections for national elections; most used proportional representation for their most powerful legislative body. In 1999, South Africa held its second elections using proportional representation; once again, voter turnout and voter respect for the outcome were high, all racial and political groupings elected a fair share of seats, and women won more than twice the share of seats held by women in the U.S. Congress.

Various proportional and semi-proportional systems exist in both partisan and non-partisan forms. More than 200 localities in the United States use one of three non-partisan systems: cumulative voting, limited voting or choice voting. The many forms of PR embody the same goals: (1) assuring that all eligible voters have an effective vote; (2) assuring that as many voters as possible have someone to represent them in policy-making bodies; (3) enabling both majorities and minorities to have fair representation, and (4) creating legislatures that truly represent the wide diversity of the electorate’s political opinions and interests. Not all PR elections achieve these goals, particularly for very small groupings of voters, but they have a proven record of achieving these goals more effectively than winner-take-all systems.

Proportional representation allows for the emergence of a pluralistic multi-party system that could include parties speaking strongly for racial and ethnic minorities and people of all incomes and across the political spectrum. If PR were adopted in the U.S., the electoral prospects of lower-income Americans likely would be improved by the first successful organization of leftist or labor parties, as exist in virtually all Western democracies with PR. Under winner-take-all rules, it is essentially futile to organize such parties. A third party stands little chance of electoral victory and in fact has the perverse impact of helping the party its supporters most oppose by splitting the vote of the established party it would otherwise support.

In a PR system, a labor party or other low-income party could create a viable electoral presence without splitting the vote. Knowing that each new vote could help gain more seats, a low-income party would have more incentive to inform, cultivate and mobilize its supporters. By creating a viable electoral presence, the party would give low-income Americans a powerful, urgently needed reason to vote. Data from the U.S. Census shows a direct correlation between voter turnout and income that is only becoming more pronounced. In the 1996 presidential race, under the current system, voter turnout was only 44% among the 17 million American citizens earning less than $15,000 a year, in stark contrast to the 76% turnout among the 23 million citizens earning more than $75,000. Under PR, the poor would have much greater incentive to vote because they would know that their votes would actually elect someone to represent their interests.

Proportional Voting in Practice

Texas provides a good example of the increasing use of proportional voting systems. In addition to Amarillo, more than 50 Texas jurisdictions adopted cumulative voting in the 1990s; in 1995, then-Texas Governor George W. Bush signed legislation that allows school districts to adopt cumulative voting and limited voting.

• Cumulative voting and limited voting have been used in nearly two dozen Alabama localities for a decade in the wake of a sweeping win in a voting rights case. Studies of these Alabama elections demonstrate that they have boosted turnout and increased black representation as much as or more than would have occurred if single-member districts had been used. In Chilton County, black candidate Bobby Agee in 1988 led the field in the first elections using cumulative voting for a seven-seat county commission, even though blacks were barely 10% of the population and he was heavily outspent. Most of his supporters, overwhelmingly black, took advantage of their opportunity to allocate all seven of their votes for him rather than spread their votes among other candidates. The first black commissioner in Chilton County’s history, Agee has twice been re-elected and has served as chair of the commission.

• Choice voting has been used for decades to elect the city council in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the local school boards in New York City. These bodies have reflected the diversity of the cities far better than other elected bodies in the same cities. This was also typically true when choice voting was used to elect city councils in New York City, Cincinnati and other major cities before its Cold War-era repeal.

• Starting in 1995 with Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney’s Voters’ Choice Act, bills to allow states to use proportional systems for U.S. House elections were introduced in every session. North Carolina Congressman Melvin Watt’s 1999 States’ Choice of Voting Systems Act drew bipartisan support and was the subject of a hearing; those testifying in favor of the bill and proportional systems included the Department of Justice and Republican Congressman Tom Campbell.

• Nearly 100 jurisdictions have adopted proportional systems to settle voting rights challenges, and federal judges several times have sought to impose them directly as remedies in voting rights cases. Very familiar with redistricting as a result of having presided over a challenge to Illinois’ congressional districts in which majority-minority districts were upheld, Federal Judge David Coar in 1998 ordered the city of Chicago Heights to adopt cumulative voting to elect its city council and park board. Cumulative voting has a rich history in Illinois, being specifically permitted in state law, used currently in Peoria and used for more than a century to elect the state’s House of Representatives, during which time representatives like Harold Washington and Carol Moseley-Braun were elected.

 • The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has taken important positions involving proportional systems. The DOJ has pre-cleared use of cumulative voting and limited voting in numerous states covered by Section Five of the Voting Rights Act; as of 2000, every jurisdiction seeking to convert from a winner-take-all system to one of these systems ultimately was permitted to do so. In 1999, the DOJ wrote an amicus brief for the Chicago Heights case, backing Judge Coar’s order of cumulative voting. Also in 1999, the DOJ denied pre-clearance to New York City after the legislature voted to replace choice voting (a fully proportional voting system) with limited voting (a less proportional system) for electing the city’s local school boards; choice voting had elected a significantly higher percentage of racial minorities to school boards than had been elected to other legislative bodies in the city.

• Significant organizations support education about proportional voting methods. In 1998, a National Black Caucus of State Legislators task force found strong interest among black legislators in learning more about proportional and semi-proportional systems, particularly in how they might assist redistricting negotiations. The League of United Latin American Citizens, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund joined with local plaintiffs to win the adoption of cumulative voting in Amarillo, the largest city now using cumulative voting. The National Conference of Black Political Scientists endorsed proportional systems in 1999. In 2000, the Southern Center for Studies in Public Policy pursued ambitious educational outreach to black elected officials and historically black colleges and universities, while the Southern Regional Council produced a booklet on Alabama’s history with proportional systems. National and state affiliates of US Public Interest Research Group, Common Cause, the National Organization for Women and the League of Women Voters adopted positions in favor of proportional representation.

An Alternative to Majority-Minority Districts

This rising interest in proportional representation obviously is not occurring in a vacuum. Voting Rights Act provisions on redistricting divided and preoccupied the Supreme Court more than any other issue in the 1990s. The Court heard arguments in cases involving voting rights and redistricting every year in the wake of its 1993 Shaw v. Reno ruling, often producing bitterly contested 5-4 decisions that had the general—if poorly defined—impact of limiting states’ use of race in drawing legislative district lines.

Proportional representation can increase minority representation without requiring the creation of “majority-minority districts”—districts where a racial minority is the majority. Drawing such districts has been the most effective solution to minority underrepresentation, but can have important drawbacks. For example, majority-minority districts require the continuation of some degree of housing segregation that concentrates minority populations within easily drawn boundaries. Another problem is that minority-dominated districts still deny representation to many voters—even if candidates they might like can win in some districts, many people will be left as “filler people” in a district in which they are the minority. A third difficulty is that the process of concentrating predominantly Democratic minorities into one district can create surrounding districts that are more Republican, resulting in the election of more conservatives who are less likely to support the interests of minorities. Majority-minority districts are fairer than the old white-dominated districts, but not always as good as proportional representation.

Apart from legal battles over Shaw and philosophical concerns, civil rights attorneys have discovered, in states like Texas, Alabama, and North Carolina, that alternative systems can simply be a good fit with local conditions. Perhaps a minority community is more geographically dispersed than necessary for a single-member district plan. Perhaps a jurisdiction may want to avoid redistricting every decade. Perhaps there is frustration that most voters in a minority community are still left out of a chance to elect a candidate of choice even with a district plan that provides for enhanced minority representation. Perhaps in a multi-racial community, a citywide proportional plan is the easiest way for different racial minorities to elect representation.

Local government is an obvious place for stressing the utility of a proportional plan, as the mathematics of what it takes to win representation are quite straightforward. But higher election levels such as state legislatures are also now being considered. As for Congress, it would take a version of Representative Watt’s legislation to give states the sensible option to consider some degree of proportional voting in seeking to fairly represent our increasingly complex diversity.

The goal of proportional systems is simple: providing means to allow fair and realistic opportunities for citizens to elect individuals of their own choosing. While no cure-all, they are a necessary step toward creation of a more inclusive, responsive political system, and will finally give badly needed representation to poor and minority Americans who have been systematically denied access to power by our flawed winner-take-all election rules.

[Douglas Amy ( is a professor at Mount Holyoke College of Politics. His latest book is Behind the Ballot Box: A Citizen’s Guide to Voting and Democracy (Praeger Publishing 2000). Robert Richie ( founder and executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy (6930 Carroll Ave., #901, Takoma Park, MD 20912, 301/270-4616), a non-profit organization that researches and distributes information on election reforms promoting voter participation, accountable government and fair representation.]

Proportional Voting Systems

• Limited Voting

In limited voting, voters either cast fewer votes than the number of seats or political parties nominate fewer candidates than there are seats. The greater the difference between the number of seats and the number for which one can vote, the greater the opportunities for minority representation. Versions of limited voting are used in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Hartford and numerous other local jurisdictions. It has been adopted to resolve at least 30 voting rights cases in Alabama and North Carolina since 1987.

Example: In a race to elect five candidates, voters might be limited to two votes. Winning candidates are determined by a simple plurality: the five candidates with the most votes.

• Cumulative Voting

In cumulative voting, voters cast as many votes as there are seats to be elected. But unlike winner-take-all systems, voters are not restricted to giving only one vote to a candidate. Instead, they can cast multiple votes for one or more candidates.

Cumulative voting was used to elect the Illinois state legislature from 1870 to 1980. In recent years it has been used to resolve voting rights cases for city council and county commission elections in Alabama, Illinois and New Mexico and for school board elections in Alabama, South Dakota and Texas.

Example: In a race to elect five candidates, voters can cast one vote for five candidates, five votes for one candidate or any combination in between. The five highest vote-getters win.

• Choice voting

Also known as “single transferable vote” and “preference voting,” choice voting is the most common candidate-based proportional system used in other nations. Each voter has one vote, but can rank candidates in order of choice (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.). Candidates win by reaching a “victory threshold” roughly equal to the number of votes divided by the number of seats. If a candidate has too little first-choice support to win, votes for that candidate are transferred to those voters’ next choices. This transfer of votes facilitates coalition-building and allows a candidate to run without fear of being a “spoiler” splitting the vote.

Choice voting has been used for city council and school board elections in Cambridge, Massachusetts, since 1941 and is used for New York City local school board elections. Ireland and Australia use choice voting for national elections. The city council in Cambridge (where blacks are 13 % of the population) has had black representatives since the 1950s. Choice voting in other cities, including for five elections to the New York city council from 1937 to 1945, also resulted in fair racial, ethnic and partisan representation.

Example: In a race to elect five candidates, voters can rank in order of choice as many candidates as they wish. Candidates win by gaining the support of about one-fifth of the voters. A ballot counts towards the election of that voter’s top-ranked candidate who needs that vote to win