Keep It Simple
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
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
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