Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Editor's Note: This is Part 1 of a five-part series on voting systems and fair representation.
Back in May, local activist Louis Smith addressed the Dorchester District Two Board of Trustees expressing distress that the board is elected with an at-large or multimember plurality voting system.
Smith said that votes were determined by race and not issues. He said that minority communities such as Robynwyn and Brownsville were not getting their needs heard.
He gave the board a time limit to change the system to a single-member system before he went to the Justice Dept. under the Voting Rights Act.
A few weeks later the board responded in a letter letting Smith know that it had no control over the system. The system is determined by the congressional delegation, not the trustees.
Curious as to the difference between the two and what other options might be available, the Journal Scene dug into voting systems…not without trepidation … it is a complex subject and there are many.
For the purpose of this series we have focused on just a few: the two that Smith was comparing – at-large and single-district as well as proportional representation and semiproportional representation and the methods of voting these offer such as single transferrable voting, choice voting, cumulative voting, limited voting, etc.
We have used multiple resources including Fair Vote, the Mount Holyoke political science department publications, International IDEA Handbook of Electoral System Design, Democracy Building, The Oxford Handbook of Gender and Politics, Stanford University sources, various Supreme Court decisions and College of Charleston political science department chair Gibbs Knotts.
We have tried to simplify the various processes without losing accuracy.
What is representation?
Hannah Pitkin in her 1967 The Concept of Representation made understanding political representation a bit easier.
Pitkin identified four types of representation:
AuthorizedDescriptiveSymbolicSubstantiveAuthorized representation is defined as that where a representative is legally empowered to act for another. For example, someone with Power of Attorney.
Descriptive is defined as being where the representative stands for a group by virtue of sharing similar characteristics such as race, sex, ethnicity, language or residence.
Pitkin defines Symbolic as being where the leader stands for national ideas and Substantive as being where the representative seeks to advance a group's policy preferences and interests. For example, Symbolic might be where a presidential candidate advocates health care reform or change to immigration and Substantive might be the Green Party or the Tea Party.
None are without problems, according to Pitkin. For example, descriptive representation leads to focus on the characteristics at the expense of attention to the action of the representative. In other words, voters might focus on race, sex or geography while ignoring what the representative is actually doing.
(Part 2, at-large and single-member districts.)