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"Proportional Representation: A Tool for Empowering Minorities and the Poor,"

by Douglas Amy September/October 1994 issue of Poverty & Race

Adoption of proportional representation elections (PR) in the U.S. is a political reform that should be of great interest to activists and scholars con-cerned with issues of race and poverty. Thanks to Lani Guinier and others, this long neglected reform is now beginning to get the attention it deserves. Proportional representation would create new avenues of political power for minorities and the poor, two groups traditionally denied fair access to the halls of power in this country.

Denying Fair Representation

Much of the political frustration and alienation that afflict poor and minority communities can be traced to their lack of political power. One important reason for this lack of power is the inability of these groups to elect their fair share of representatives on the local, stare, and national level. For instance, despite making up over 12% of the U.S. population, African-Americans occupy only about 5% of the elected offices in the U.S., and have only 1% of the seats in the U.S. Senate.

Imagine for a moment how different it would be if the Senate had twelve African-Americans instead of one. They would make up a small but important voting bloc. Additionally, their very presence on committees and on the floor would be powerful reminders of the political concerns of African-Americans; no longer would it be easy to put these issues on the back-burner, as so often happens today.

What prevents such fantasies of fair representation from becoming a reality is our continued adherence to an election system the single-member districts that is inherently unjust and undemocratic. This system is explicitly designed to make it very difficult for racial, economic, and political minorities to elect representatives. Single-member district elections require the winning candidate to attract a majority or plurality of the vote. By definition, candidates representing electoral minorities have great difficulty amassing this large number of votes and so they stand little realistic chance of being elected. In most districts, racial minorities are outvoted by white major-ities and the poor are outvoted by middle-class majorities. Thus, under our current system, minorities and the poor have the right to vote, but they often are denied the equally fundamental right to representation. This systematic disempowerment of minorities and the poor is an inevitable result of a winner-take-all, single-member district system.

The PR Solution

Proportional representation is designed to remedy these electoral injustices. It ensures that all group (minorities and majorities) get their fair share of power and representation in our legislative bodies. These goals are achieved by a simple electoral mechanism: all legislators are elected in large multi-member districts, with the various seats allocated according to the proportion of votes won by a party or group of voters. For example: in a ten-member district used to elect members to a state legislature, if the Democrats win 50% of the vote, they would win five of the ten seats; if an African-American party wins 20% of the vote, it would win two of the ten seats and so on.

PR systems take many forms (see box), but they all embody the same goals: (1) assuring that all citizens have an effective vote; (2) assuring that all citizens have someone to represent them in policy-making bodies; (3) enabling both majorities and minorities to have fair representation, and (4) creating legislatures that truly represent the wide diversity of political opinions and in-terests in the electorate. The ability to achieve these goals and to produce fair representation for all has made PR the most common and popular form of elections for Western industrialized democracies. Only Great Britain, Canada and the United States continue to cling to single-member district elections. Even the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, while rushing to embrace an American-style economic system, have explicitly rejected American-style elections and (with one exception, Ukraine) have adopted various forms of PR.

PR has become the predominant form of elections worldwide because it creates a more open, more inclusive, more democratic political system. But what specific advantages would it have for minority and low-income Americans?

PR and Minorities

If proportional representation were adopted in the U.S., it would immediately and dramatically increase the representation of racial and ethnic minorities. Not only would minority candidates be consistently elected, but PR would also allow for the first time the organization of viable minority-oriented parties, such as a Latino party or an African-American party. Currently, it makes little sense to organize such parties, for, like all minor parties in a single-member district system, they would stand little chance of electoral victory. But PR allows for the emergence of a truly pluralistic multi-party system which could include parties representing racial and ethnic minorities.

Importantly, using proportional representation to increase minority representation would eliminate the need to create A majority-minority district, districts where minorities are the majority. Currently, this is the most effective solution to minority under representation sought under the Voting Rights Act, and it has met with some success. But it also has some important drawbacks and is increasingly embroiled in controversy and court challenges.

One major drawback is that majority-minority districts require the continuation of housing segregation to concentrate minority populations within easily drawn boundaries. When minorities become dispersed throughout a city or region, it becomes much more difficult (sometimes impossible) to create such districts. Also, at times, efforts to create majority-minority districts result in the drawing of oddly-shaped districts, such as North Carolinas much criticized snake-shaped 12th congressional district. A second problem is that minority dominated districts often deny representation to the whites contained in them. And a third difficulty is that the process of concentrating predominantly Democratic minorities into one district can create surrounding districts that are more Republican, resulting in the election of more conservatives who are less likely to support the interests of minorities.

Because of these problems, majority-minority districts are a second-best solution: better than the old white-dominated districts, but not as good as proportional representation. PR is a simple and elegant way to ensure fair representation for minorities without any of the complica-tions of trying to create special districts for them.

PR and the Poor

The emergence of new candidates and new parties under proportional representation could also brighten the political prospects of lower-income Americans. For example, in cities where lower-income residents make up more than 10-15% of the electorate, they could mobilize enough votes to elect their own representatives. More importantly, PR would encourage the formation of a true leftist or labor party in the U.S. Case exists in virtually all Western democracies with PR. Such parties would be much more likely to address the problems of economic inequality and the needs of lower-income Americans than do our current major parties.

Such parties would, for the first time, give poor Americans a reason to vote. Currently, lower-income Americans earning under $15,000 a year have a 44% turnout rate, compared to 74% for those earning over $40,000. If the poor knew that their vote would actually elect someone to represent their interests, they would have a much greater incentive to vote. Also, truly progressive parties would actively organize and mobilize poor voters, in contrast to the Republicans and Democrats, who largely ignore poor voters in their pursuit of the larger middle-class electorate. It is no accident that democracies that have proportional representation see significantly higher voter turnout rates for their lower-income citizens.

Making our legislatures more representatives of all income groups could also help to change the terms of political debate over poverty. Today, conservatives have succeeded in transforming the issue of poverty into the issue of welfare. Even the Democrats talk about ending welfare as we know it, not ending poverty as we know it. Few elected officials focus on the plight of the working and non-working poor. Instead, most court middle-class votes by bashing welfare recipients.

Under PR, however, legislators representing the interests of the poor could provide an important counter-balance to this anti-poor rhetoric. By speaking out in the media and in our legislatures, they could begin to focus public attention on the real causes of poverty such as the lack of decent paying jobs and attack those politicians who merely attempt to blame the victims.

Current Activism Around PR

The movement to bring proportional representation to the United States is small but gaining political momentum. A national organization, the Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington, DC, has been created to educate Americans about alternative election systems and to coordinate local organizing efforts. Several political organizations, including the National Organization for Women and Americans for Democratic Action, have endorsed PR elections for the U.S. However, many other progressive political groups need to make PR part of their political agenda if this reform is to become a reality.

Much of the activism around PR has been taking place on the local level, where proportional representation could be adopted simply by changing city or county charters. (On the federal level, it would take an act of Congress to allow members of the House to be elected by PR, a Constitutional amendment to elect Senators in this way.) Groups in North Carolina, Ohio, Washington, California and Massachusetts have been organizing around this issue and have already produced some promising results. In Cincinnati, in 1991, a small group of citizens put a referendum on the ballot to change city council elections to proportional representation. Though the group had little time or money to run a campaign, they succeeded in winning 45% of the vote. This close call suggests that once Americans come to understand PR and its essential fairness they will respond very positively.

The nomination of Lani Guinier to head the Justice Departments Civil Rights Division also has given proportional representation greater visibility. She has been able to capitalize on the media attention surrounding her abandoned nomination to promote her ideas about proportional representation and voting rights to a wide audience of Americans. It is also encouraging that the federal courts have approved proportional representation systems as remedies in local voting rights cases in several states.

Of course, PR is not a cure-all for the various political ills that afflict poor and minority communities. But it certainly is a necessary step toward creation of a more inclusive and fairer political system, and it will finally give badly needed representation to poor and minority Americans who have been systematically denied access to power by our current, flawed election rules.

Douglas J. Amy is an associate professor in the Department of Politics at Mount Holyoke College (S. Hadley, MA 01075). He is author of Real Choices/New Voices: The Case for Proportional Representation Elections in the United States (Columbia University Press, 1993). The Center for Voting & Democracy (Rob Richie, Executive Director) is at 6905 Fifth St. NW, #200, Washington, DC 20012, 202/882-7378.

Douglas Amy is a professor at Mount Holyoke College Department of Politics. His latest book is Beyond the Ballot Box: A Citizen’s Guide to Voting Systems (Praeger Publishing, 2000).

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