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A Representative Congress: Enhancing African American Voting Rights in the South with Choice Voting

// Published November 27, 2012
VR

 

In southern states, racially polarized elections remain an active part of political life. Since 1965, the Voting Rights Act has guaranteed that African Americans in the South cannot be shut out of elections either through direct barriers to voting or through discriminatory districts that prevent the achievement of representation. It transformed suffrage rights and representation in legislatures across the South, with a leading instrument being creation of "majority-minority" districts - ones in which racial minorities gain representation by virtue of making up the majority of the population within some district.

However, relying on winner-take-all elections has inherent limitations. In the belt of southern states including Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas, the use of districting to achieve a fairer level of representation for African Americans has hit a ceiling. While redistricting in 1991 contributed directly to election of seven new African American Members, the total number of African American Members did not change this year.

To push through that ceiling and achieve truly fair representation, FairVote recommends abandoning the single-member district in favor of super districts elected by choice voting. Under choice voting, voters rank candidates in order of preference by whatever criteria they think important, and those preferences then are used to elect candidates in proportion to their popular support without wasting excess votes for standout candidates guaranteed to win or protest votes for candidates sure to lose. With a long history of use in local elections in the United States, choice voting has resulted in fair representation for political and racial minorities.

Louisiana currently has six House districts and exactly one majority-minority district, with every other district having more than 60% white voters and a Republican Members. However, African Americans make up nearly one third of the voting age population of Louisiana. Under our fair voting plan using choice voting in two districts with three Members each, African Americans in Louisiana would have the opportunity to elect two candidates of choice by being above the quarter of the vote needed to win one of three seats.

Similarly, African Americans in Alabama, South Carolina, and North Carolina would have enhanced opportunities to elect candidates of choice. Here is a chart contrasting current African American representation in Congress and shares of the voting age population living in district with a clear opportunity to elect preferred candidates with what it would be with adopting of choice voting in super districts of three, four or five districts:

State

Louisiana

Mississippi

Alabama

Georgia

South Carolina

North Carolina

Seats / Superdistricts

6 / 2

4 / 1

7 / 2

14 / 4

7 / 2

13 / 3

Majority-minority Districts (Currently)

1

1

1

4

1

2

Candidates of Choice Under Choice Voting

2

1

2

4

2

3

African American Voting Strength* (Currently)

32%

43%

35%

40%

30%

19%

African American Voting Strength* Under Choice Voting

100%

100%

100%

100%

100%

100%

* Measures percentage of African Americans living in district where power to elect a preferred candidate under conditions of racially polarized voting

Note that the number of seats held by African-American preferred candidates would likely increase by four total. More dramatically, the number of African Americans in a direct position to elect preferred candidates would soar from well under half of African American adults to 100% of them - including those African Americans who prefer to vote for Republicans.

This enhanced power can also be true in parts of other states with the same character; for example the eastern edge of Texas is composed of five white-majority districts which, if combined into a single super district using choice voting, would permit the election of a racial minority candidate of choice. In much of this region, African Americans make up a sufficient proportion of the population to earn greater legislative representation, but they are not geographically segregated enough to be drawn into majority-minority districts, making a proportional system the only option for breaking past their current ceiling.

Even in racially polarized states with an insufficient population of racial minorities to gain actual representation, choice voting would guarantee that racial minorities could influence the outcome in a meaningful way. For example, in Arkansas, every congressional district has over 70% white voting population. Given that each representative is elected on a winner-take-all basis, it is therefore not surprising that in 2012 every one of its four districts elected a white Republican. With choice voting, racial minorities still would not compose enough of Arkansas' population to elect a candidate of choice with their votes alone, but choice voting gives you the power to indicate backup choices whom you might help win if your first choice is defeated. African Americans Democrats would have sufficient numbers to influence elections by joining in cross-racial coalitions of voters able to elect at least one candidate more reflective of their policy preferences.

And significantly, choice voting would guarantee that every African American voter - in fact every voter, period - could point to an elected legislator that he or she helped elect. As our table shows, even in states like Georgia, which are currently able to have enough majority-minority districts to elect a fair number of racial minority candidates of choice, most African American voters do not live in those majority-minority districts. Most racial minority voters in the South must currently be satisfied with so-called "virtual representation," in which candidates they favor are only elected in districts they do not themselves reside in. For example, in North Carolina, only 19% of African American adults live in one of the two districts where African Americans have sufficient voting power to elect a candidate of choice. Under choice voting, 100% of African Americans would live in a district with an African American candidate of choice in every state within this southern belt.

In an ideal world, racially polarized voting would not occur and candidates could be defined by their responsiveness to people based on their ideas rather than their identities. But we're not in that world yet, as made plain by such facts as the U.S. Senate not having any African American Members. The first step in that direction requires ensuring that racial minorities cannot be denied a voice.  A second step is to encourage voters to think beyond their first choice when indicating backup preferences second and third. The use of majority-minority districts led to much more racial minority representation in legislative bodies, but it has hit an impasse - and has thus far been limited in its reliance on "virtual representation" and acceptance of winner-take-all rules that always deny representation to many people. To continue moving forward requires something new. Choice voting represents a race-neutral and constitutional means of electing a body that fairly represents the population however they may choose to vote.