Voter-rights Suit on Firm Historical Ground

This opinion piece ran in the Sunday Republican on Sunday, April 17, 2005.

By Douglas J. Amy

The recently filed voting-rights suit against Springfield's at-large elections is the latest in a number of citizen-based challenges to this voting system.

Plaintiffs in this suit want to replace at-large voting with a ward-based system. Their complaints about the current system are familiar ones - that it discriminates against Latino and African-American candidates, that it disempowers minority voters, that it fails to produce fair geographical representation and that it discourages voter turnout.

As city leaders and other members of the community consider how to respond to this suit, it would be very useful to consider some of the history of at-large voting. History, it turns out, has some important lessons to teach us about this voting system.

At-large voting is probably the oldest form of election system in the Western world - dating back to its uses in the first elections in Great Britain in the 18th century. But by 1885, the British realized that this system was fraught with problems, and they passed legislation to require single-member district elections (also known as ward elections) for virtually all British elections. When the rest of Europe began to use elections, they didn't even seriously consider at-large voting, but went right to single-member district elections and then eventually on to proportional representation elections. Today, at-large voting has become one of the least popular voting systems in the world - used in only 6 percent of democratic countries.

In the U.S., in the beginning days of the Republic, at-large elections were very common. Many of the first states chose to elect their members to the U.S. House of Representatives in statewide at-large contests. But it eventually became clear that this approach often allowed one party to win all the House seats from a state - thus leaving large numbers of voters without any representation in that body. Hardly a fair outcome. So most states eventually changed to single-member district elections.

In U.S. cities, at-large voting experienced a burst of popularity in the early 20th century. Ironically, it was portrayed as a progressive election reform, because it was aimed at eliminating the ward bosses who were supporting corrupt political machines - like that of Tammany Hall in New York. But historians have noted that this "reform" was also aimed at undermining the political power of the growing immigrant population in many of these cities. It was an obvious attempt to bolster the political position of the wealthy WASPs who had traditionally run those cities.

Another surge of adoptions of at-large voting occurred in the South following the passage of the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s. Many areas of the South switched from single-member district, or ward voting, to at-large elections for cities, state legislatures and even Congress. This was clearly intended to discourage the election of African-Americans. If blacks couldn't be stopped from voting, then maybe they could be stopped from getting elected. Congress eventually passed a bill in 1967 to forbid the use of at-large elections for the U.S. House - an effort to prevent this kind of racist election rigging.

On the city level, many of these at-large systems, both in the North and the South, have since been challenged and eliminated by voting-rights suits similar to the one being filed in Springfield. Federal courts have found that these election systems discriminate against minority voters and candidates and thus clearly violate the Voting Rights Act and its amendments.

In short, the history of at-large voting has been a sordid one. It has often been used to deny minorities their fair share of political representation and power. The overwhelming trend both worldwide and in the United States has been to abandon this outmoded and inferior election system. This should give pause to those who would oppose this lawsuit and attempt to maintain at-large elections. History is not on their side and it is just a matter of time before reformers will succeed in eliminating this system in Springfield.

This current suit is on very strong grounds because the discrimination against minorities and minority candidates is so easy to demonstrate. Defending this suit will also cost the city tens of thousands of dollars - money it cannot afford these days - and it will almost certainly fail as it has it most other cities.

So there are good moral, political, and fiscal reasons for city officials to settle this suit quickly and agree to move to a more modern and fairer election system.

Douglas J. Amy, a professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, is the author of Behind the Ballot Box: A Citizen's Guide to Voting Systems from Praeger Publishers.

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Douglas J. Amy - Faculty Profile