- Election Information
- Minority Representation
Racial Minority Representation and Electoral Systems
Many racial minority groups are severely underrepresented in local, state, and federal government. All discussions of improving descriptive racial minority representation in the United States are guided by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and a later 1967 law that legally embeds the notion that single-winner districts are better for minority representation than multi-winner districts, especially block voting (Carroll and Sanbonmatsu, 2013).
Contemporary scholarship supports the idea that minorities are most fairly represented in well-drawn single-winner districts only when the minority population in question is politically homogeneous and geographically concentrated. In recognition of these problems, inherent in single-winner districts, judges increasingly uphold multi-winner proportional electoral systems, like Cumulative Voting and Limited Voting, as legitimate alternatives to majority-minority single-member districts under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The literature shows:
The observed increase in descriptive representation of minorities under single-winner districts has not translated into proportional increases of substantive representation, as the voices of minority policymakers are drowned out by non-minority policymakers (See Rocah, et al, 2010). Both Richard Engstrom (2011) and Elisabeth Gerber et al (1998) observe that courts increasingly rule that racially gerrymandered districts dilute votes or reduce overall minority influence by limiting minority representation to a few majority-minority districts. These districts make up a small proportion of districts, meaning that the voices of minority legislators, and the constituents they represent, can be drowned out in the aggregate.
- In single-winner districts, Hispanic populations are disadvantaged because they tend to be more evenly distributed and spread-out. Single-winner districts are notoriously bad for minority groups that are evenly dispersed across an area (See: Welch (1990) and Casellas (2009)).
When more than one minority population lives in a district, plurality ensures that vote splitting can ensure that neither minority group is represented. For example, in a district with sizable Black and Latino populations with a candidate from each group running, vote splitting can ensure that neither candidate wins (See: Paru Shah, 2009).
Proportional representation in multi-winner districts is a valid means by which to increase fair representation of racial minority groups (Amy, 2002, 138).
- As Douglas Amy (2002) notes, one of the biggest advantages to multi-winner proportional systems such as cumulative voting, is a change to the power structure. In a proportional system, power is shared between representatives representing different groups, rather than held by just the largest group. Thus, an election does not need to lead to one group winning all the representation in a district with all others feeling that they lack representation.
- Similarly, Shaun Bowler et al (2003) observe that multi-winner proportional systems allow various groups to share power instead of creating the dynamic of power-winner versus power-loser that is so common in plurality systems. The authors argue that, when power is shared, minorities and non-minorities are responsible for the same district, which may foster cross-cultural communities instead of perpetuating a system of separate communities.
- As long as minority voters continue to vote in a racially polarized manner (for an in-group descriptive candidate), then both women and minorities should both benefit from cumulative voting and other proportional systems (Zimmerman,1994, 674). David Brockington et al (1998) come to a similar conclusion, noting that proportional systems have potential to increase minority representation if minority voters turnout at rates comparable to majority voters.
RCV and the representation of racial minority groups
Because multi-winner RCV is not yet widely used in the United States, and single-winner RCV has gained popularity recently, we do not yet know much about the impact of RCV on minority representation.
There is good reason to expect that multi-winner RCV will fairly represent ethnic and racial minorities, for the same reasons other proportional systems do (Amy, 2002).
Early, anecdotal, evidence shows that RCV in single-winner districts has been accompanied by high levels of representation for ethnic and racial minorities. Currently (2015), three of the four mayors of the Bay Area cities using ranked choice voting in their elections are female. Women hold half or more of the offices elected by RCV in the Bay Area in three cities: Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro. Women and people of color hold 47 of the 52 elected offices filled using RCV.
To explore the link between RCV and the representation of ethnic and racial minorities FairVote has launched two ambitious projects:
RCV and the Representation of Women and People of Color in the Bay Area: In this project, FairVote is quantifying the impact of RCV on the representation of women and people of color in the Bay Area. We use an extensive database of candidates dating back to 1992 and a rigorous difference in differences method. We anticipate our project to be complete by June 2016.
Electoral Systems and Customs and the Representation of Women and People of Color at the County Level: The Who Leads Us databases, created with the assistance of the Women Donors Network, record the gender, race and ethnicity of candidates and elected officials from the local county to national level of public office in 2014. Utilizing these extensive databases, FairVote is exploring the impact of different electoral systems and customs on descriptive representation. For example, we will explore the relevance of term limits to the representation of women and people of color. By the end of 2016, we will publish an interactive tool ranking each county as well as publish a report highlighting what structural reforms are associated with more equitable representation of women and people of color.
We anticipate completion of these projects in 2016.
- Bowler, S., Donovan, T., & Brockington, D. (2003). Electoral reform and minority representation: Local experiments with alternative elections. Ohio State University Press.
- Bowler, S and B. Grofman. 2000. Elections in Australia, Ireland, and Malta Under STV: Reflections on an Embedded Institution. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Introduction 1-14
- Carroll, Susan J. and Kira Sanbonmatsu. 2013. “Rethinking Candidate Emergence” from More Women Can Run: Gender and Pathways to the State Legislature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. P. 2-17.
- Cooper, Duane A. 2007. The Potential of Cumulative Voting to Yield Fair Representation. Journal of Theoretical Politics 19(3). 277-295.
- Cooper, Duane and Arthur Zillante. 2012. A Comparison of Cumulative Voting and Generalized Plurality Voting. Public Choice 150(1) 363-383.
- Hero, R. and C. Tolbert. 2005. Exploring Minority Political Efficacy: Considering the Impact of Social and Institutional Context. In G. M. Segura and Shaun Bowler (eds) Diversity In Democracy: Minority Representation in the United States. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
- Lien, Pei-te. 2015. Reassessing Descriptive Representation by Women and Men of Color: New Evidence at the Subnational Level. Urban Affairs Review 51(2). 239-262.
- Shah, Paru. 2009. “Racing Toward Representation: A Hurdle Model of Latino Incorporation”. American Politics Research 28(1). 84-109.
- Shah, Paru, 2014. “It Takes a Black Candidate: A Supply-Side Theory of Minority Representation. Political Research Quarterly 67(2). 266-279.
- Welch, Susan. 1990. The Impact of At-Large Elections on the Representation of Blacks and Hispanics. The Journal of Politics 52(4).
- Zimmerman, Joseph F. 1994. Alternative Voting Systems for Representative Democracy. PS: Political Science and Politics 27(4).