PART 2: A study of voting systems … what gives fair representation?

  • Thursday, July 25, 2013

Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a five-part series on voting systems and fair representation. (Part 1 is also on our website).

Last issue we looked at what representation means. This week we compare two types of voting systems: at-large and single-member districts.
At-large or multimember plurality voting system
In plain English, the at-large system simply means that candidates do not represent a specific area or district but every candidate represents every voter and those with the most votes (plurality) win the seats.
Today, at-large voting is primarily used in local elections – school district and municipal. Typically, an entire city or town or school district is considered to be one large voting district and all the candidates run together against each other.
Voters have the same number of votes as the number of seats to be filled. The candidates with the highest number of votes (plurality) win.
How it works: There are several variations of at-large voting. Sometimes the at-large seats are numbered and specific candidates vie for those individual seats. In another variation, some cities use the numbered seats but also have a residency requirement so that candidates for a particular seat must live in a certain area. This ensures that all neighborhoods have some representation even though all voters get to vote for each of the seats.
At-large voting was designed to ensure that those elected represented the electorate or voters as a whole without special interest. It eliminates the possibility of Gerrymandering – the unfair creation of voting districts for the benefit of party or special interest.
It is a winner-take all system and, ironically, shares most of the same problems as single-member district plurality voting, including low-voter turnout, high levels of wasted votes (votes that ultimately do not count toward the election of a candidate – for example: voting for a candidate who has little or no chance of winning the majority vote), and denial of fair representation to third parties, racial minorities and women.
In an at-large system the spoiler problem can be capitalized on. It is open to the intentional manipulation through the recruitment of candidates solely to take some of the opposition’s votes. Additionally, having too few candidates in a slate can also result in undemocratic defeats as voters’ remaining votes may go to candidates in an opposing slate.
According to the Mt. Holyoke College Political Science Department, at-large voting tends to be the worst at representing racial and political minorities and, in its common form, fails to ensure that all neighborhoods are represented.
Single member district plurality system
Single member district plurality voting is the system most commonly used for legislative elections in the United States.
How it works: In this system, all the candidates appear on the ballot and voters indicate their choice of one of them. The votes are counted and the one with the most votes wins. The winner does not need a majority of votes, only more (a plurality) than their opponent.
Single member district plurality focuses on ensuring that all geographical areas have a voice. It tends to reinforce the two-party system and produce stable single-party majorities in the legislature. It does this by making it difficult for third parties to elect their candidates and also serves as a check on extremist parties.
However, either through natural division along neighborhood boundaries or as a result of intentional gerrymandering, single member plurality elections tend to result in limited choices and few competitive races, says Fair Vote, the Center for Voting and Democracy.
And, according to the Mt. Holyoke College Political Science Department, this system tends to produce manufactured majorities, misrepresent parties, encourage gerrymandering, discourage voter turnout, create high levels of wasted votes and deny fair representation to third parties, racial minorities and women.
Fair Vote notes that under this system minority candidates may win when district boundaries are drawn favorably or as a result of the spoiler scenario, but it is not assured.
By creating district boundaries favorable to minorities – as long as the minority is geographically concentrated – a majority-minority district is created.
However, in June of 1996, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional four congressional districts that had been created for minorities.
“By rejecting so-called “majority-minority” districts for Hispanics and African Americans in Texas and North Carolina,” says Douglas J. Amy, Mt. Holyoke College, “the Court sent a strong message that this method of promoting fair representation for minorities will no longer be acceptable.
According to Amy, the Supreme Court has made it clear that it will frown on any district whose creation is based predominately on race.
The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) Handbook of Electoral System Design states that while Single-member districts can be used to give every neighborhood a say in local affairs, if diversity within local government is desired the “‘spokes of a wheel’ principle of districting” should be applied. This is where district boundaries are not drawn around identifiable neighborhoods but are segments of a circle centering on a city (or in this case school district) center and ending at the outer edges. A pie chart, if you will. This ensures, according to IDEA, that each district is a mix of economic class and ethnicity.
(Part 3, proportional representation.)

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