By 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 multi-ethnic 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 office-holding (reflecting the conventional wisdom in the civil rights community), then race-conscious multi-member 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 multi-member 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.