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Keep It Simple

A response to Robert Richie and Steven Hill's "The Case for Proportional Representation"
Rep. Cynthia McKinney

In 1992, I experienced first-hand what it meant to largely rural African-Americans in Georgia for the first time in their lives to have a real hope of electing their candidate of choice to Congress. In 1996, my redesigned, now white-majority district returned many of my former constituents back to the old southern districts and left me, in the opinion of many analysts, little more than political road-kill. Contrary to the naysayers, I was able to win re-election in a tough campaign that demanded both great mobilization of African-American voters and sustained outreach to open-minded white constituents who had a chance to learn about me as an incumbent representative. "Fair representation of racial minorities" sounds good on paper, but believe me, it's far better in the real political world.

My experiences in mobilizing voters to win and then keep a seat in Congress helped me see that the reason for our low voter turnout and restless electorate go beyond a lack of reform in our campaign finance and lobbying systems. Voter choices on election day are usually so limited that when Americans find themselves going to the polls, all too often it is to vote against a candidate rather than for one. In a multi-member district with proportional representation, voters would have a chance to choose among a range of viable candidates. A voter could likely support and elect a candidate who agreed with her on her issues of greatest concern--abortion rights, perhaps, or tax policy or child care--rather than having to settle for a lesser of two evils. I work hard to represent everyone in my district, but I have no illusions; a large number of my constituents would prefer another representative. And as the only congresswoman from Georgia and the only black woman representative from the deep South states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, I feel an obligation to speak for many people outside my district. It is no different for my fellow Georgian Newt Gingrich and many other House Members. PR would allow elections to be based on this reality, rather than the fallacy that Members speak only for the people in their districts.

My experience in the 1990s certainly underlines the fact that districts are a construct of politics, not geography. The Rehnquist Supreme Court has argued that the politics of districting allow districts to be gerrymandered "bizarrely" to protect white incumbents, but not to promote representation of black and minority voters. Rob Richie and Steven Hill are right on target when they suggest that redistricting allows legislators to choose their constituents before their constituents choose them. Critics of race-conscious districting who suggest that race is the only cause of gerrymandering--and only a problem if blacks become a majority in a district--are either astoundingly naive or dangerously manipulative. Whatever tools were used in 1991-92 to draw black-majority districts were applied with far greater vigor to create "safe" districts to protect white incumbents from their constituents.

Most of the democratic world long ago abandoned one-seat district representation. In 1996, South Africa cemented its rejection of one-seat districts when President Nelson Mandela signed a new constitution with a requirement for proportional representation. It is impressive that 33 of the world's 36 major, full-fledged democracies use forms of PR.

I have long been convinced of the merits of PR, which is why I introduced the Voters' Choice Act in Congress in 1995 and again in 1997. The Voters' Choice Act (HR 3068) is a modest but very important step toward promoting serious debate about PR in the United States. It would restore the opportunity for states to use PR systems to elect their delegations to the US House of Representatives. Its potential appeal is broad enough that in announcing my 1995 bill, I had beside me the directors of US Term Limits, the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, and the National Women's Political Caucus.

The political establishment in Washington has a difficult time with PR because it requires that its members earn their power, not inherit it. I expect the Voters' Choice Act to gain an impressive number of cosponsors in 1998, but it faces an uphill battle. The political imperative of history demands that we take action, however. Women's suffrage began as a so-called unrealistic idea, as did the concept of democracy itself. Yet today these precepts are so firmly rooted in our polity that they seem almost part of our societal DNA. The discussion on PR must begin in earnest as public discontent increases, voter turnout decreases, and political minorities come under siege in our halls of power. It is high time to challenge the "winner-take-all" notion that a candidate securing 50.1 percent of the votes deserves 100 percent of power.

While I am thus convinced by the authors' arguments for PR in the United States, as a political practitioner I have three suggestions:

1. Describe PR more simply. I agree with Richie and Hill that PR has much appeal to supporters of term limits, voting rights, and campaign finance reform. But not only these Americans must understand PR; advocates must learn to explain it in a way that a second-grader can understand it. One of my favorite examples is shopping for cereal. As consumers Americans enjoy a wide variety of choice in cereal. We would be outraged if we had to choose only between corn flakes or shredded wheat. Yet our electorate is settling for even less variety: on election day Americans essentially get a choice between corn flakes or frosted flakes. They are the same thing; one is just a little sweeter than the other. PR would put more variety--and spice--in our electoral diet.

2. Show incumbents the merits in PR. For PR to become a reality for elections in most state legislatures and Congress, incumbent legislators need to see its value for them. I am encouraged by support for the principle of minority representation found in Illinois. In addition to learning more about the history of cumulative voting in Illinois and the past and current history of PR in other American elections, PR advocates must explain what positive changes PR would make for incumbents. One important change relates to redistricting. Many Members of Congress are already preparing for the next redistricting after the 2000 census, knowing that their political lives may be at stake. Conversion to PR would allow them to earn a loyal constituency and the power to control their own destiny, since by serving their constituencies well they can earn re-election

3. Make voting rights central. I was very pleased that the National Black Caucus of State Legislators recently adopted a resolution to study PR. The historic struggle for the voting rights of blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans provides a legacy upon which PR advocates must build. Our message must be simple: we cannot go back. If the Supreme Court limits majority- minority districts, then we will find another way. PR may be just the alternative approach that our times demand. n

Originally published in the February/ March 1998 issue of Boston Review



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