This is the third part in a multi-part series on the projected impact of the Fair Representation Act on voting rights and representation for people of color.
The United States continues to fall short in fairly reflecting its diversity in elected offices. Our widespread use of a winner-take-all rule -- that is, one where the biggest group of voters can win 100% of representation -- presents a challenge to candidates who are not the preferred choice of a majority of voters. While Asian American and Pacific Islanders (API) may be the smallest community in many jurisdictions, it is still the fastest growing and most diverse demographic in the country. API voters and their preferred candidates are particularly underrepresented by our current winner-take-all rules.
With the recent introduction of the Fair Representation Act, legislation in Congress to end winner-take-all elections, we examine the state of representation of people of color in the current Congress and how it might change with enactment of the Fair Representation Act. Previous entries in this series discussed African American representation in the South and Latino representation in the Southwest. This installment looks at the Fair Representation Act’s impact on the Asian American and Pacific Islander representation on the West Coast and Hawaii.
Current Demographics and Representation
As an initial remark, this project consistently uses census counts for its analysis. That means that “Asian” is treated as a single racial group, even though it actually consists of many distinct ethnicities, and while it includes Filipino Americans, it does not include Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders. Between 2000 and 2010, “Asian” was the fastest-growing racial group in the United States. Despite this, the congressional districts drawn after the 2010 Census left API voters significantly underrepresented in the U.S. House of Representatives.
While 4.8% of American citizen voting age population (“CVAP”) identified as Asian in the 2010 Census, there are only three congressional districts where the Asian CVAP is either a majority (two districts) or a plurality, giving Asian voters the power to elect directly just 0.7% of the House of Representatives. Only 12% of Asian American voters actually live in those three districts, further diluting the influence of API voters.
Despite this limitation, API candidates have been able to win U.S. House seats outside those three districts. According to the Congressional Research Service, there were 13 voting members of the House who identify as Asian, Pacific Islander, or South Asian American elected to the 115th Congress. Even so, this represents just 2.9% of the House of Representatives, far short of the API’s share of the citizen voting age population.
The Fair Representation Act
The Fair Representation Act offers a way to address this imbalance. The Act works by instituting an American form of proportional representation: ranked choice voting (“RCV”) in multi-winner districts. That way, a group can have the power to elect candidates of choice without making up more than 50% of a district. For example, in a five-winner district, any group making up more than 17% of voters will have the power to elect a candidate with their votes alone, while 34% will elect two candidates, and so on.
The number of House seats API voters would have the power to elect is projected to triple, going from three to nine. The percentage of Asian voters living in districts where the Asian CVAP is high enough to elect the candidate of its choice would go from 12% to 35%. In another seven districts (which are home to 16% of Asian American voters) the proportion of Asian American voters would be more than half of what it takes to win in their district, making them a highly influential group of voters, especially given the use of RCV. As the fastest growing community in the country, the API influence in these and other districts is likely to grow over time.
As two examples, this effect would be particularly prominent in the short term in two West Coast states, California and Washington.
California is home to 33.8% of America’s Asian CVAP, as well as two of the three districts where Asian CVAP is the largest racial group (the third is in Hawaii). Under the Fair Representation Act, California would be divided into 11 multi-winner districts, six of which are projected to have Asian CVAP high enough to elect a candidate of choice. Remarkably, the proportion of Asian voters in California living in a district where their CVAP meets the threshold to elect a candidate would increase by an order of six times, from 12% to 72%.
For the first time, Washington State would have a district where Asian CVAP meets the threshold to elect a candidate. The number of Asian voters in Washington living in a district where their CVAP meets the threshold to elect would go from 0% to 73%.
Factoring in Turnout Differences
Voter turnout among API communities has often been lower than that of other groups. There is good reason to believe that turnout would be more equitable in a system that makes every vote more powerful. Studies of jurisdictions adopting other fair representation voting methods in local elections to remedy violations of the Voting Rights Act show that more candidates from racial minority groups seek office and turnout increases.
However, even if voter turnout remained static, the number of representatives that API voters would have the power to elect would increase. Adjusting CVAP numbers based on recent voter turnout averages where API turnout was about two-thirds the turnout of white and African American voters results in the number of districts where API voters have the power to elect a candidate increasing from two under the current system to five, with the three additional seats all being in California.
API Representation in Other States
Outside of the West Coast, API voters would retain the voting power to elect one of Hawaii’s House seats and API voters in New York would gain a seat where their CVAP is at the threshold to elect (raising the number of API voters in New York living in a district where they have the power to elect from 0% to 43%).
Of course, the political influence of a community can depend on more than if its members get elected to office. The number of APIs currently serving in Congress is a testament to the ability of many API candidates to gain crossover appeal (even though that number is still well below truly proportional representation). Also vital is a community’s ability to play a deciding role in an election. In districts with a high Asian CVAP, every candidate running will be incentivized to appeal to (or at least not alienate) API voters. In multi-winner districts using RCV, smaller communities will be able to exercise far more influence than they ever did in the current, winner-take-all system. The Fair Representation Act would give communities across the country a stronger voice than ever before.
Finally, at the outset, we mentioned that the category “Asian” is really a very broad term encompassing a variety of different ethnicities. They may collectively identify as Asian Americans, but they may also vary significantly in values, interests, and in lived experiences that inform their political viewpoints - for example, Asian Americans may identify as Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, or Filipino Americans. Ranked choice voting would allow these meaningful differences to be honestly expressed, including the Pacific Islander community, all while encouraging coalition-building both among the diverse viewpoints that make up the API community, as well as between APIs and other racial and ethnic groups.