Proportional Representation:

Destabilizing Idea

ABIGAIL THERNSTROM

Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute

 

Testimony during hearings on “H.R. 1173/States’ Choice of Voting Systems Act,” U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on the Constitution, September 23, 1999

 

    Here are my thoughts on the proposal to allow states to use districting systems other

than single-member districts to elect representatives to Congress.

The current system works well. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

[Advocates of proportional representation] argue, of course, that repair is, in fact,

needed—that states should not be forced to elect members of Congress exclusively

from single-member districts. The process of congressional redistricting involves many

disruptions and much uncertainty, they argue. But where political interests are at

stake, that is inevitable. They point to the costs of litigation, but those costs have been

the consequence of attempts to draw ludicrously gerrymandered districts in an effort

to create a maximum number of safe black seats. That expense, in other words, was a

self-inflicted wound. Now that such race driven redistricting has been ruled unconstitutional,

the legal expenses associated with line-drawing should go down.

    Advocates of proportional representation] also suggest that increased racial polarization

is the price America pays for single member districts. The attempt to draw such

districts in such a manner as to give minority voters a chance to elect the “representatives

of their choice…has heightened racial divisions.” This is a difficult argument to

understand. The Supreme Court [in Reno v. Shaw, 1993] forced North Carolina to

redraw Congressman [Mel] Watt’s district, and its black population dropped from 57

percent to 36 percent. With a majority white constituency, Mr. Watt was compelled

to forge a biracial coalition. Such coalitions do not increase racial polarization; they

reduce it. Any system of elections that encourages biracial or multiethnic coalitions

is a plus. America is still too racially divided; every device that brings us together should

receive a very warm welcome.

    In addition, the black voters in the first and twelfth districts of North Carolina have

not been deprived of a “chance” to elect the representatives of their choice. Indeed, the

only time black voters have no chance to elect the representatives of their choice

(who may be white, of course) is when whites are a majority and refuse to support

anyone who can pick up black votes. In an earlier era, there were such settings. But

America has changed—as is so well illustrated by the victories of Mr. Watt and

Ms.[Eva] Clayton [elected in 1992 as the first black members of Congress from

North Carolina in a century]. In 1998, in his 36 percent black district, Mr. Watt won

with 56 percent of the vote. Sixty-two percent of the voters cast their ballots for Ms.

Clayton in her 50 percent white district. They will undoubtedly argue that they had

an enormous advantage as incumbents, but they were not incumbents in the newly drawn

districts in which they had to run. Doors are wide open to black candidacies

today; everyone knows Colin Powell would have had massive white support had

he chosen to run for the presidency. In 1999 our problem is not bigoted white voters

(a relatively small minority), but a paucity of black candidates willing to test

the biracial electoral waters. If Mr. Watt and Ms. Clayton are serious about wanting to

narrow the racial divide, they should encourage other potential African American

candidates to build biracial or multiethnic coalitions in settings that are not safely

majority-black.

    Increasingly, that will become essential. Black voters are becoming more residentially

dispersed. Over 30 percent now live in suburbia; segregation is down in central

cities as well—contrary to conventional wisdom. The proposed legislation would

undercut the incentives currently built into the single-member system to form such

biracial and multiethnic coalitions—incentives that will grow stronger as black voters

become less residentially concentrated. With demographic change, Mr. Watt

and Ms. Clayton may worry that safe black seats—majority black constituencies

—will be harder to create. And they may believe that multimember districts

will better allow the perpetuation of racial gerrymandering to maximize black office holding.

Indeed, race-conscious line drawing is not confined to single-member districts;

racial considerations can play a dominant role in setting the contours of,

say, the three multimember districts that a particular state might contain. But such

gerrymandering is not in the interest of either white or black voters.

    In a series of recent voting rights decisions that was precisely the Supreme

Court’s point. Such gerrymandering is not in the public interest. As Justice [Sandra

Day] O’Connor put it in Shaw v. Reno, contours obviously drawn with race in

mind suggest racial stereotyping. They reinforce “the perception that members of the

same racial group—regardless of their age, education, economic status, or the community

in which they live—think alike, share the same political interests, and will prefer

the same candidates at the polls.” In other words, individuals—not races—differ.

Assume otherwise, O’Connor suggested, and racial lines are likely to harden.

Such racial gerrymandering is not in the public interest, but if the voting rights section

of the U.S. Department of Justice continues to believe that the Voting Rights Act

is an instrument with which to maximize black officeholding (reflecting the conventional

wisdom in the civil rights community), then race-conscious multimember

districting will most likely be transformed from a mere option—as advertised—to a

full-blown entitlement on the theory that anything less would “dilute” the black vote.

And thus single-member districts won’t even be a choice in those states in which

multimember districting is advantageous to black congressional candidates.

Suppose the consequence of leaving the current system unchanged is a disproportionately

low number of blacks and Hispanics in Congress. That is, suppose the

black membership in Congress does not reflect precisely the black proportion of the

U.S. population. (Indeed, as long as almost all African American members of Congress

are Democrats, the black proportion will reflect Democratic Party strength rather

than the black presence in the American population as a whole.) Is there something

wrong with black underrepresentation by the measure of proportionality?

    To begin with, answering, yes, assumes that only black officeholders can represent

black interests. And yet would anyone argue that only whites can represent white

interests? Such an assertion would correctly be viewed as racist.

    In addition, the purpose of an electoral system is not to mirror the population precisely,

but to produce officials who can govern. The current system not only creates

incentives for reaching across racial and ethnic lines during campaigns, but also forces

compromise among various political factions. From multimember districts, the next

step will be to cumulative voting, which will encourage a multiplicity of parties,

some of which will be racially defined There will be a David Duke party [Duke is

a segregationist leader and former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux

Klan] and a black nationalist party, and blacks and whites will both be the losers.

In order to govern, representatives from a variety of warring parties will have to create

shifting coalitions, but such temporary post-election alliances will inject instability

into a system that now works well. Congress banned at-large elections for

congressional seats in 1967, but the preference for single-member districts actually

stretches back much further. Moreover, at the state level there has been a dramatic

decline in the use of multimember seats, largely as a consequence of actual or threatened

civil rights litigation. (In 1962, 41 lower houses used some multimember districts;

by the mid-1990s, the number was 12; for state senates, the number dropped

from 30 to 4.) Civil rights groups have long regarded at-large voting and multimember

districts with the deepest suspicion, and with litigation, threats of litigation, and a

cooperative Justice Department have forced the adoption of single-member districts for

elections at the state and local level across the nation. Maps were drawn, jurisdictions

with at-large and multimember districts were targeted, and a sustained campaign to

bring them all down was launched. The reasoning behind that campaign

was clear: Where black voters are residentially concentrated, such single-member can

be carefully drawn to create absolutely safe black legislative seats. But for those of us

who lived through this history, today’s sudden change in sentiment—embodied in

this bill—is simply incredible. A vital component of civil rights orthodoxy has been

abandoned without so much as a pretense of an explanation. If multimember districts

and at-large voting are okay for Congress, are such electoral arrangements now equally

acceptable in the Mississippi counties from which they were banned by the Supreme

Court in it’s 1969 landmark decision? Can other counties and cities return to at-large

elections? What is the principle here? Last I knew, even the Supreme Court had

directed lower courts, who were imposing redistricting plans, to use single-member

districts.

    The smaller districts that the civil rights community has insisted upon have reduced

the costs of campaigning, and have thus encouraged candidates with limited financial

resources. Cumulative voting might solve the latter problem, but it carries with

it other serious difficulties, as already suggested. Some of the problems are quite

technical. For instance, could residents of a multimember district expect a member of

Congress within that large district to represent everyone, or would constituency services

be available only to that small minority of citizens (organized perhaps in a splinter

party) who provided the needed votes? In any case, if proponents of this bill want

cumulative voting, they should say so directly.

    In short, Mr. Watt and Ms. Clayton were elected under precisely the circumstances

that have been the staple of civil rights dreams. And they should celebrate

the gains that America has made. They are black officeholders elected with substantial

white support. A new chapter in American history has opened; Congress should not be

tempted to close the book when the story has finally become so heartening.