Fair Representation for Racial Minorities: Is Proportional Representation the Answer?

Douglas J. Amy

Mount Holyoke College

In June 1996 the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional four congressional districts that had been created for minorities. By rejecting so-called "majority-minority" districts for Hispanics and African Americans in Texas and North Carolina, the Court sent a strong message that this method of promoting fair representation for minorities will no longer be acceptable.

These decisions sent shock waves through the minority voting rights community, which understandably reacted with frustration and anger. After all, these minority-dominated districts have been the main way the minorities have increased their representation in Congress and state legislatures. But the important question now is where do we go from here? What are the political options for those of us who still believe that fair representation of all citizens is a basic requirement of any democracy?

One option that certainly is not acceptable is simply to acquiesce to the Court's decisions and return to the old approach to districting that did not take minority interests into account. The result would hardly be "race-neutral" as the Court has suggested. In reality, minority voters would once again become submerged in white majority districts, and we would turn the clock back to a time when we had virtually all-white legislatures. In North Carolina, it would mean returning to the pre-1992 era, when no African Americans were elected to Congress from that state, despite the fact that blacks make up about 24% of the electorate there. This denial of representation would make a travesty of democracy and only further increase the political alienation already felt by minorities in this country.

A second option is to fight a rearguard action through the courts, attempting to defend each majority-minority district as it is challenged. Groups like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund will undoubtedly continue to follow this strategy in an attempt to preserve current minority seats. However, the Supreme Court has now made it clear that it will look skeptically on any district whose creation was based predominantly on race. Since race did play a major role in the making of most majority-minority districts, this will make it difficult to defend them. So while this effort to save current minority districts is an important short-term tactic, and while it may work in some cases, it is difficult to be optimistic about the long-term success of this approach.

This leaves us with the only other real option: to adopt alternative election systems that would allow for fair representation of minorities and yet would pass constitutional scrutiny. Fortunately we don't have to look far for these alternatives. Proportional representation elections have been long used by most other Western democracies, and they do a very good job of ensuring fair representation for political and racial minorities.

Proportional representation (PR) uses large, multi-member districts in which the seats are allocated according to the percentage of the vote cast by various political groups. Assume, for instance, that we had a large five-seat district in which African Americans made up 20% of the voters. If they all voted for a black candidate, that person would win one of the five seats. The advantage of proportional representation elections, and one of the reasons they are so popular in other countries, is that they allow for fair representation of both minorities and majorities.

One form of proportional representation -- the cumulative vote -- has already been in use in several cities in Alabama, Texas, and New Mexico. The results have been encouraging: both Hispanic and African-American candidates have been able to win local office under this system. The Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington, D.C. has shown that PR also could work in federal elections for the House of Representatives. It has drawn up a map of North Carolina that demonstrates how its 12 congressional seats could be organized into 3 four- seat districts using proportional representation. In three of these districts, African American voters make up at least 25% of the electorate, which would give them a good chance to elect one of their own candidates.

In the long run, proportional representation may be the only politically and constitutionally viable solution to the problem of minority representation in the U.S. PR would allow minorities a fair chance to elect their own candidates without resorting to the kind of race-based districting that has provoked the recent legal backlash. White voters would have nothing to complain about with PR since it would allow them to elect their fair share of representatives, and it wouldn't involve the drawing of special or "funny shaped" districts to benefit minorities. In this sense, proportional representation is a truly "race neutral" approach to districting, and one that would finally resolve once and for all this festering political problem.

Americans committed to fair representation need to familiarize themselves with how these alternative systems work, promote the adoption of these systems on the local level, and pressure Congress to pass legislation to allow the use of proportional representation for congressional elections. Now is not the time to abandon the goal of fair representation for all Americans. We simply have to find new ways to achieve that goal; and currently, switching to proportional representation elections would seem to be our best bet.

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