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Synthesis/Regeneration 25   (Summer 2001)

Electoral Alternatives

Instant Runoffs, Proportional Representation,
and Cumulative Voting—
Reclaiming Democracy in the 21st Century

by Rob Richie and Steven Hill,
Center for Voting and Democracy

It had been decades since control of both the White House and Capitol Hill was so furiously contested. The presidential polls were close right up to Election Day, producing the most competitive race in a generation.

Yet once again more than 100 million American adults abstained from the November elections. This majority was disproportionately young, poor, less educated, and of color. Their absence provides the clearest evidence that we are becoming a post-electoral democracy: one where many civil institutions are strong and most rights reasonably well-protected, but where the elections at democracy's core are unobserved and their potential to mobilize, inform, and transform are unrealized.

It doesn't have to be this way. In fact, most established democracies already provide their voters with better and more viable choices. In presidential elections, they have runoff or instant runoff elections that allow a sincere first choice rather than one for the "lesser of two evils." To elect legislatures, they use proportional representation systems that make every voter important, not just those fortunate few living in the handful of districts that are competitive in our system. Voters can cast meaningful choices not only between the major parties, but also within those parties and among smaller parties to the left, right, and center.

Reforms of the fundamental electoral rules can sometimes seem of secondary importance in the face of pressing issues like national health care, world trade inequities, a living wage, legalization of drugs, reparations for African Americans, campaign finance reform, and a laundry list of worthwhile but still-distant goals. In fact, only fundamental reform of our voting practices will liberate supporters of these goals to express themselves at the ballot box.

Full Representation for All

We have been pleased to see the remarkable rise in interest and activism on behalf of instant runoff voting. Last year's debate over Ralph Nader's Green Party candidacy revealed a serious flaw in our antiquated electoral rules: voting for your favorite candidate can lead to the election of your least favorite candidate. We need instant runoff voting to encouraging people to vote for their favorite candidate and insure majority rule, but instant runoff voting remains a majoritarian system. Because minor party candidates won't be much more successful in winning office than under plurality rules, advocates should focus on winning instant runoff voting for inherently winner-take-all offices (like president, governor and mayor).

...instant runoff voting remains a majoritarian system.

Proportional representation—or, as we prefer to say, "full representation"—would have a dramatic impact on voter choice and representation in our congressional elections. It ensures that any grouping of like-minded people—minorities and majorities—gets a fair share of power and representation in our legislative bodies, whereas our current winner-take-all principle can award 100% of the representation to a 50.1% majority. If black voters comprise 20% of the vote in a racially polarized county, they can elect at least 1 of the 5 seats—rather than be shut out, as they would be in a traditional at-large election or in a single-member district plan that dispersed their vote across several districts. If the Green Party won 10% of the vote in a state, it would win some 10% of the seats.

Versions of proportional representation are used in most well-established democracies. In 2000, there were 41 democracies with a high Freedom House human rights rating and a population over two million. Of these, only three—Canada, Jamaica and the US—use winner-take-all for all national elections; most used proportional representation for their most powerful legislative body. In 1999, South Africa held its second elections using proportional representation; once again, voter turnout and voter respect for the outcome were high, all racial and political groupings elected a fair share of seats, and women won more than twice the share of seats held by women in the US Congress.

...of nearly 8,000 state legislative and congressional seats, third-party candidates won a grand total of 4 in 2000...

Under current winner-take-all rules in the United States, few House elections are competitive. Fewer than 1 in 10 races were won by less than 10% in 1998 and 2000—no surprise, given that redistricting gives legislators the power to choose their constituents with ever more powerful computers and precise data. Even when a race is competitive, voters' realistic choices are limited to one candidate from each major party; minor party winners are exotic exceptions. Out of nearly 8,000 state legislative and congressional seats, third-party candidates won a grand total of 4 in 2000; in sharp contrast, more than half of new parties established in recent decades in European democracies with proportional representation have ultimately won seats, and vibrant multi-party democracy is the norm. Winner-take-all elections also make it extremely rare for racial minorities to win in white-majority districts. Not surprisingly, since no states are majority Black or majority Latino, none of our 100 US senators or 50 governors is Black or Latino.

Full representation would break open political monopolies and give political and racial minorities realistic chances to run and win all across the country. The fight for control of the House of Representatives in 2000 would have been a national election, rather than the piecemeal, money-driven campaign that took place in 20 or 30 close races in swing districts.

In Illinois, cumulative voting was used in three-seat districts, where any constituency that had 25% of the vote could win representation.

The potential of full representation can be glimpsed by looking at Illinois' experience with cumulative voting for state legislative elections from 1870 to 1980. Cumulative voting is a semi-proportional voting method used in more than 60 localities in the United States, including Amarillo (TX) and Peoria (IL). In Illinois, cumulative voting was used in three-seat districts, where any constituency that had 25% of the vote could win representation. In Illinois this had a number of positive results, including fuller representation for both major political parties and opening the door for political independents as well as women and people of color. With Democratic strongholds like Chicago electing Republicans and conservative suburbs and rural areas electing Democrats, both major parties had a direct interest in serving the entire state. Former representative Harold Katz described the legislature as "a symphony, with not just two instruments playing, but a number of different instruments going at all times."

Parties in a winner-take-all are supposed to be "big tents." But winner-take-all leaves whole swathes of the electorate without strong representation—be it Catholics who are both pro-life and pro-labor, union members opposed to gun control, or reform-minded independents drawn to John McCain. In contrast, Illinois' districts typically had three representatives from distinct parts of the political spectrum: two representing liberal and moderate wings of the majority party and one from that area's minority party. Political minorities in office included Chicago Republicans concerned with urban issues and independent reformers like Harold Washington willing to take on local machines. In 1995, the Chicago Tribune editorialized in support of cumulative voting's return, writing that "it produced some of the best and brightest in Illinois politics."

Political observers also talk about how cumulative voting meant less partisan rancor and regional polarization. Contrary to their reputation, single-seat districts don't represent geographic interests very well. Across the nation, for example, Republicans represent most rural districts, while Democrats represent nearly all urban districts. When only one side represents a region, policy for that area is subject to the whims of the majority party in each state and in the US House. Cities can suffer under Republicans who don't rely on urban voters, but also can suffer under Democrats too quick to accept the local status quo. Setting environmental policy in the Rockies is far more problematic when those open to change are shut out of representation. The repeal of cumulative voting undercut bipartisan support for key policies and greatly exacerbated urban/suburban fractures. Chicago has been a big loser in equitable funding of public schools, for example. Former Republican Congressman John Porter notes that with cumulative voting "We operated in a less partisan environment because both parties represented the entire state."

Cumulative voting also resulted in much better representation of African-American candidates. For several years in the 1950s and 1960s, for example, the share of black legislators in the house elected by cumulative voting was three times that of the senate elected by winner-take-all. Women candidates also performed better. It encouraged more grassroots campaigns where money was less of a factor, and more independent candidacies that could buck the local machine because only 25% of the vote was needed to win a seat.

This aspect of full representation is particularly important given that the Congress remains overwhelmingly male and the US Senate has no Blacks or Latinos. Under current rules, Blacks and Latinos have only made significant advances when districts are drawn to produce a majority-minority constituency. Yet recent Supreme Court rulings have made such pro-active districting more difficult, making full representation plans particularly promising as an alternative means to enforce the Voting Rights Act. Combining adjoining districts into bigger districts elected by a proportional system would almost certainly increase the number of blacks elected to the US House in states such as Virginia, North and South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. Women also would likely increase their numbers (still below 15% of Congress).

Voting System Reform Is Politically Viable

It is increasingly clear that voting system reform can be won in the United States when the right opportunities are presented. IRV is proving a winning argument for both Democrats and Republicans when confronted with actual or potential spoilers. A dozen states have considered IRV legislation in 2001, and passage is plausible in such states as California for special elections for Congress and Washington and Vermont for federal elections. In Alaska, the Republican Party, beset by split votes, has made a sweeping IRV bill for all state and federal offices its number-one legislative priority, and advocates have gained a place on the statewide ballot in 2002. Cities are also good targets for IRV campaigns, and we expect adoptions in 2002.

Contrary to their reputation, single-seat districts don't represent geographic interests very well.

Full representation can be seen as a bigger challenge to the status quo. But the current "drive to revive" cumulative voting in Illinois shows how obstacles can be overcome when people are familiar with the system. Nationally, Congress probably won't order states to elect House members by proportional representation tomorrow, but it has the constitutional power to do so. More realistically, it could adopt a Voters' Choice Act—versions of which have been supported by leading Congressional Black Caucus members since 1995—to return to states the option of using multi-seat districts to elect their congressional delegations.

City councils also could use full representation systems—as indeed some do and have. Two such systems—cumulative voting and limited voting—have been adopted to settle more than 80 voting rights cases, and ballot measures to enact choice voting won some 45% of the vote in San Francisco in 1996 and Cincinnati in 1991. The most dramatic recent example of the impact of full representation at a local level comes from Amarillo, Texas, where a lawsuit by the NAACP and Latino community leaders led to adoption of cumulative voting. In the first election with cumulative voting, a black candidate and a Latina candidate won for the first time ever, voter turnout tripled over the previous school board election, and all parties in the voting rights settlement expressed satisfaction with the new system.

Looking further back, choice voting was used to elect the New York City Council in the La Guardia era. Over the course of five elections, choice voting turned the Tammany Hall monopoly into a vibrant five-party system that also elected the city's first black councilmember, Adam Clayton Powell. The Democratic Party machine eventually used anti-leftist sentiment to win repeal in 1947, and immediately restored control over the elections.

The elements of the pro-reform coalition are coming together. National groups recently endorsing proportional representation include the Sierra Club, US PIRG, Alliance for Democracy, and NOW, while state affiliates of Common Cause and the League of Women Voters support IRV legislation. The League of Women Voters is conducting national studies of voting system reform, as are four state League chapters. The NAACP, the ACLU, and other civil rights groups are studying alternative voting systems as a means to preserve minority representation in the upcoming round of redistricting.

Last year's election highlighted the need to overhaul our electoral process, creating a remarkable reform climate in the coming years. Full representation systems and instant runoff voting address all of these democratic maladies in ways that other reforms cannot. While no cure-all, they are a necessary step toward creation of a more inclusive, responsive political system, and will finally give badly needed representation to poor and minority Americans who have been systematically denied access to power by our flawed winner-take-all election rules.

Richie and Hill are co-authors of Reflecting All of Us (Beacon Press). For more information, see http://www.fairvote.org or write to the Center for Voting and Democracy, PO Box 60037, Washington, DC 20039.

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