PART 3: A study of voting systems … what gives fair representation?

  • Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Editor’s Note: This is Part 3 of a five-part series on voting systems and fair representation.
Last week we delved into at-large systems and single-member districts, neither of which is known for ensuring fair representation of minorities.
Fair representation
So what is fair representation for racial minorities? What serves all the voters best?
Gibbs Knotts, chair of the Political Science Department at the College of Charleston, says they all have advantages and disadvantages.
He notes that at-large is intended to be representative of all the people, voted for by all the people and at large candidates would look at the [school] district as a whole and not just one segment.
The disadvantage, he said, is “who is your person, who do you call?”
With regard to single-member districts, he said, “If they draw the districts right….”
Knotts pointed out that in South Carolina about 30 percent of the state’s voters are African American.
“In a district that is 30 percent African American,” he said, “then the board should be 30 percent African American,” which, for the seven-member DD2 Board of Trustees, would be 2.1 seats.”
This is assuming the district mimics the state, he said.
Knotts said the majority/minority district increases the likelihood of minority representation but has the downside of not looking at the district as a whole.
“The downside is there is no coalition, no working together,” he said.
“Nor,” he said, “are people with the best interest of the entire district being elected.”
And, he said, in a majority-minority district people might simply vote along racial lines instead of for the best candidate.
However, said Knotts, there is another option. Proportional representation.
Proportional representation
Proportional representation systems have long been used by most other Western democracies and they do a good job of ensuring fair representation for political and racial minorities, according to Amy in a white paper titled “Fair Representation for Racial Minorities:”
Proportional representation (PR) uses large, multi-member districts in which seats are allocated according to the percentage of the vote cast by various political groups.
For example, in a five-seat district where African Americans are 20 percent of the population, and they all voted for a black candidate that person would win one of the five seats.
One reason, says Amy, that they are so popular in other countries (PR voting is used in 21 of 28 democracies in Western Europe) is that they allow for fair representation of both minorities and majorities.
A form of PR that is in use in cities in Alabama, Texas and New Mexico, is the cumulative vote. In these cities both African American and Hispanic candidates have been able to win office under this system.
The Center for Voting and Democracy in D.C. has shown that PR could work on a federal election level for the House of Representatives. It has drawn a map of North Carolina that shows how its 12 congressional seats could be organized into three four-seat districts using proportional representation. In three of those districts African Americans would make up at least 25 percent of the electorate which gives them a good chance of electing their own candidates, according to CVD.
According to Amy, “PR may be the only politically and constitutionally viable solution to minority representation in the U.S. PR would allow minorities a fair chance to elect their own candidates without resorting to the kind of race-based districting that has provoked … legal backlash.”
White voters, writes Amy, would have nothing to complain about since it would allow them to elect their fair share of representatives and would not involve the drawing of “funny-shaped” districts to benefit minorities.
“In this sense,” said Amy, “proportional representation is a truly ‘race neutral’ approach to districting….”
In addition to better minority representation, PR solves many of the problems caused by plurality-majority voting including fewer wasted votes, higher levels of voter turnout, better representation of women, greater likelihood of majority rule and little opportunity for gerrymandering.
Within a PR system there are types of voting. They include Party list voting, Closed and Open Party List Ballots, Largest Remainder Approach to Seat Allocation, Mixed-Member Proportional Representation Ballot and Single Transferable Vote/Choice Voting. School boards are nonpartisan so party lists don’t apply. The Single Transferable Vote that reform activists have taken to calling Choice Voting has been used in the U.S. in New York, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Toledo and Boulder and is used in Cambridge, MA for elections to city council and school board.
How it works: All candidates are listed in the same place on the ballot. Instead of voting for one person, voters rank each candidate in their order of choice. So after each candidate’s name, the voter would mark a 1 (first choice) or 2 (second choice) or 3 (third choice), etc. Voters can mark as many or as few as they want.
Explained by the Mt. Holyoke Political Science Dept., in a three-seat election where six are running for office, the first step would be to establish a threshold – the minimum number of votes needed to win a seat. (The threshold usually consists of the total number of valid votes divided by one plus the number of seats to be filled plus one vote.) So the formula would look like this: Threshold = (valid votes/1+seats) +1 vote.
In a three-seat district with 10,000 voters, a candidate would need 10,000/1+3 (which is 2,500) plus one more vote, for 2,501.
The second step is to count all the number “1” choices to see if any candidates have reached the threshold. If a candidate has reached the threshold and has more votes than needed to do so, the extra votes are transferred to number “2” on the ballot. If no one else has met the threshold then the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and that candidate’s votes go to the “2” choice candidate. If that brings the “2” candidate to the threshold any excess votes are transferred to “3” candidate and so forth.
The transfer process was created to reduce wasted votes (votes cast that do not actually elect someone). Plurality-majority systems routinely waste a large number of votes and this is why they have the problems of underrepresentation of minorities and women.
Choice voting also reduces the creation of manufactured majorities and gives fair representation to third parties, racial minorities and women
(Part 4, semiproportional representation.)

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