My Preference Would Be To Avoid Balkanized Voting
Washington Post Writers Group
WASHINGTON - It's probably bad form to admit it, given the hardening of the debate, but I have mixed feelings about the congressional redistricting case recently decided by the Supreme Court.
I'm as frightened as anybody over the prospect that the court, seemingly intent on undoing a generation of effort to remedy the continuing effects of racism, may have provided a rationale for snatching political power from minorities. Freed of the need to maximize black voting strength, state legislatures clearly could redraw their congressional districts in ways to deliver dozens of black-held seats to white control.
So what's to have mixed feelings about? Just this: the fragmentation - the balkanization - of the American society into its racial and ethnic components.
I am cheered by the growth spurt of the Congressional Black Caucus to a record 40 members - many of whom were elected as the result of some race-conscious drawing of district boundaries. Black people are better off for that congressional diversity. America is better off for it.
But follow the trend to its logical conclusion. Is the ideal to carve out the maximum number of black-majority (or Hispanic-majority or other ethnic-majority) congressional districts? Should we insist on one congressional seat for every 1/435 of the population we represent? That would give us approximately 52 seats in the House.
But they would be black seats, and that's not what most of us want. Granted that exclusion from electoral power is the greater evil, we still don't want seats set aside for us on the basis of our ethnicity.
Is there no way out of the dilemma?
Maybe there is. I've just had another of my occasional conversations with Rob Richie of the Center for Voting and Democracy, and every time I talk with him I find myself more attracted to the preference voting scheme CVD has been pushing. (It's a lot easier to like than to describe.)
It's not a new scheme. It's been used in Ireland for some 70 years and, closer to home, in Cambridge, Mass., for a good 50. Here's how Richie describes the Cambridge process:
"The nine-member city council is elected at large in the following way: Each voter is given a list of all the candidates and then votes for them in order of preference - No. 1 for first choice, 2 for second and so on as far as the voter wants to go.
"Any candidate receiving one vote more than 10 percent of the total vote is elected. If the next highest candidate garners less than the 10 percent plus one, the lowest scoring candidate would be eliminated and his votes distributed according to the individual voters' second choices." In one permutation of the scheme, "surplus" votes - votes in excess of what is needed to elect a candidate - would be distributed in the same way. Either way, you keep distributing the voters' second (or third or fourth) choices until all the seats are filled.
As I say, it's awful to describe, and I'm told that the custom in Cambridge is to count the ballots by hand, starting on Wednesday and finishing some time Saturday night. In point of fact, it needn't be that difficult in practice. Computers could easily distribute the preferences and count the ballots.
And look at the advantages of applying the scheme to, say, the Georgia congressional elections: No more crazy-quilt districts, no need to redraw districts after each census - and yet no more marginalization of minority votes. Each winning candidate would represent a constituency about the size of an existing single-member district, but the constituencies would be self-defined. That is, constituencies would choose their candidates, rather than the other way around, as happens under the present districting schemes.
Not only would minorities be more likely to elect a member of their own group but, given the electoral importance of second- and third-choice votes, all candidates would be more likely to pay attention to the interests of all voters.
Would it work? "Cambridge is about 15 percent black," says Richie, "and there has been a black representative on the council since the '50s. Also three of the seven school board members are black - and yet nobody runs as a `black' candidate."
One small problem. Before the plan could be used in a congressional race, it would be necessary to repeal a 1967 law requiring single-member districts - a law enacted, incidentally, to protect the rights of partisan minorities.
Preference voting would do it better - and without balkanizing the country in the process.
(Copyright, 1995, Washington Post Writers Group)
William Raspberry's column appears Tuesday on editorial pages of The Times.
Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.