For centuries, the promise of American democracy has been denied to communities of color. Whether it was the explicit legal barriers that denied voting rights and citizenship to many people of color until the late nineteenth century or the series of barriers and restrictions on voting that targeted people of color far after the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, America has a long and vile history of systemic racism at the voting booth. In all this time, even as critical gains have been made through the Voting Rights Act (and chipped away at with the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Act’s Section 5 preclearance standards), too little attention has been paid to the electoral system that underlies America’s national elections. Foundationally, America’s electoral system favors white voters and the problem is especially rooted in one particular aspect of this system: the winner-take-all system.
The Current Electoral College System Denies Equal Voting Power to Voters of Color
As previously noted in FairVote’s blog series on America’s winner-take-all system, almost all states within the U.S. award 100% of their electoral votes to the candidate that simply wins more votes than any other candidate, meaning that presidential candidates are incentivized to exclusively pay attention to their base in battleground states. In practice, this system results in much of the country being ignored by presidential campaigns. FairVote’s tracking of campaign events hosted by major-party presidential and vice-presidential candidates after their conventions reveals 96% of all campaign events were held in just 12 states, with Pennsylvania and Florida alone representing almost half of all visits and two-thirds of states receiving no campaign visits at all.
A closer look at demographic data shows that key battleground states are far whiter than the American population itself such that candidates end up tailoring their messages disproportionately to the interests of an under representative group of voters. After taking into account electoral college advantages, a 2016 statistical analysis by Andrew Gelman and Pierre-Antoine Kremp, professors at Columbia University and HEC Paris respectively, estimates that, per voter, whites have 26% more voting power than African Americans and 28% more power than Latinos. 2020 will show little positive change — African Americans’ share of the vote is lower than their national average in 10 of the 14 states that received multiple campaign visits.
The House’s winner-take-all system underrepresents people of color
The House of Representatives is similarly plagued with the underrepresentation of communities of color. Going into this year’s election, Congress was 78% white compared to America being 61% white and this gap has in fact been growing in recent years. This underrepresentation is also rooted in the winner-take-all system as single House districts award all of their representation to the single candidate winning the most votes, rather than splitting this representation proportionally to ensure that all segments of voters can elect preferred candidates even when they do not compose the majority of a district’s population. Hispanic Americans, for example, make up just 9% of the House of Representatives despite comprising 18% of the U.S. population.
For insight into how single winner, winner-take-all elections impact representation, consider gubernatorial and Senate elections. Only two Black candidates — Doug Wilder for one term in Virginia and Deval Patrick for two terms in Massachusetts — have been elected governor of any state since Reconstruction, and none since 2010. After Kamala Harris becomes vice-president, Corey Booker and Tim Scott will be the only Black Members of the U.S. Senate, pending the appointment of Harris’ replacement.
Gerrymandering makes this problem even worse as, even as racial gerrymanders have been struck down by courts, partisan gerrymandering often dilutes the power of reliably Democratic voters among communities of color via either “cracking” which spreads out minority voters in multiple districts to drown out their voices or “packing” which concentrates them in a single district to limit the number of representatives they can elect.
At a recent virtual Brennan Center Symposium on voting and representation, Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation, discussed at length the ways that the winner-take-all system precludes a more inclusive democracy. “America is transitioning to be a multi-ethnic democracy. Having a multi-ethnic democracy is a challenge,” Drutman said. “This is something political scientists have thought about and one of the things almost any comparative political scientist would tell you is that you want to avoid majoritarian winner-take-all systems that concentrate power in fewer hands.”
Proportional voting can lead to more reflective representation
The solution is adopting a more proportional electoral system. Such a system, as proposed by the Fair Representation Act in the United States, could entail combining House districts into fewer and larger districts that elect multiple representatives such that the number of representatives elected is proportional to votes, eliminating gerrymandering and empowering minority groups. In such a system, about 20% of voters could be enough to elect one of the representatives in a district, opening up the door for people of color to have their voices heard even when they do not compose a majority in a single district.
Indeed, studies of proportional and semi-proportional systems implemented in localities in the United States as well as other countries with more proportional systems consistently show that electoral systems without winner-take-all rules produce higher levels of both reflective and equitable representation. As such, FairVote’s simulation of House seats under the Fair Representation Act, whereby representatives would be elected in multi-member districts via ranked choice voting under a proportional system, shows that African Americans would see their number of House representatives increase by more than 25%, Hispanic Americans by more than 40%, and Asian Americans seeing a three-fold increase in representation. You could travel from California across the southern United States and up through Maryland, with every part of every state having representatives who were the preferred choice of people of color.
Depending on how low the threshold was established to win seats, proportional voting systems also allow for the creation of pluralistic multi-party systems whereby ethnic minorities could have parties more dedicated to their interests as competition between parties no longer needs to be a zero-sum game when a single district can elect multiple representatives. Some commentators argue that the two-party system already allows for this representation as parties cater to the views of their constituents and many ethnic and racial groups are concentrated in particular parties. This view, though, obscures the complexity of political thought among people of color. Despite 90% of African Americans voting Democratic in the 2016 presidential election, nearly equal numbers of African American voters identify as “liberal” and “conservative.” Also contrary to popular wisdom, Black voters are far from universally liberal when it comes to policy preferences on key issues to their communities like crime, welfare, and affirmative action.
Dedicated parties, as exist in many other proportional democracies, could instead give marginalized groups increased incentive to turn out and engage in the political process and would allow lobbying for their interests to become far more vocal. A host of empirical research shows that African Americans tend to participate more in the political process and vote at higher rates when they have descriptive representation and African American elected officials tend to be more engaged with their communities, more responsive to African American constituents, and advocate more strongly for African Americans interests in the legislative process.
The Fair Representation Act (HR 4000) backed by FairVote has a threshold to win seats and a candidate-based approach to proportionality that likely means most people of color would stay within the major parties, but at the same time have more ability to reflect a true “big tent” that allows for more differences and for greater accountability than in winner-take all rules.
Such proportional systems could also reduce the rampant voter suppression that has increased with less federal oversight. As Lee Drutman explained at the recent Brennan Center Symposium, voter suppression is “only a function of our system, particularly with single-member districts, where there’s a handful of swing districts and everything is really close and there’s a strong incentive to engage in this voter suppression” whereas in a proportional system “it’s not clear that your side will gain if you suppress the votes.”
By changing our electoral system, America can become the fully representative democracy it aspires to be. “We have to become a proportional democracy to allow more diversity of views,” Drutman summed up. “Any comparative political scientist will tell you that a proportional voting system is much fairer to minority representation because it means you don’t have to be in a majority-minority district in order to elect your candidate of choice, which doesn’t really work well for anybody and comes at a high cost.”