McKinney's Gambit: Turning Lemons Into Lemonade

by Steven Hill
This article was published by The Humanist and Z Magazine
"What we have tried to do is to take some lemons that were handed to us by the Supreme Court, and make some lemonade." Thus spoke Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) at a late October press conference announcing her introduction of House Bill 25 45. HR 2545 would lift the 1967 federal law that mandates one seat per Congressional district, allowing states the option of electing their Congressional delegations by multi-seat proportional representation.

Congresswoman McKinney's own district was thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court this past June. In its ruling, Miller v. Johnson, the Supreme Court rolled back thirty years of Voting Rights litigation and activism when it ruled that race-conscious distric ting is unconstitutional. In its continuing knee-jerk rollback of affirmative action, the High Court found McKinney's black majority-minority district in violation. Yet it has not found bizarre-shaped super-majority white districts unconstitutional, suc h as Texas' 6th Congressional district which is 91% white and has been compared by some pundits to the shape of "splattered spaghetti sauce."

Besides attempting to make lemonade out of the lemons of Miller v. Johnson, the McKinney bill has been drawing attention because of what it offers to other constituencies besides the traditional Voting Rights beneficiaries. Conspicuously present at the ne ws conference supporting HR 2545 was Jody Newman, executive director of the National Women's Political Caucus; Paul Jacob, executive director of U.S. Term Limits; Congressman James Clyburn, Democrat from South Carolina and member of the Black Congressiona l Caucus; civil rights leaders from the United Church of Christ; and Rob Richie, director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. Newman, of the National Woman's Political Caucus, stated that "research has suggested that systems of proportional represent ation result in greater numbers of elected women, and that greater numbers of women are elected in multi-member [rather] than single-member districts."

What Newman was referring to is recent research showing that the number one predictor of women's success in national legislative elections, when tested with other political and socio-economic variables, is the presence of proportional representation (PR) voting systems. For instance, Australia uses both proportional representation and U.S.-style single seat "winner take all" districts for electing different legislative bodies. Germany's mixed member system uses both PR and winner take all to elect represe ntatives to the same legislative body, the Bundestag. The results in the proportional balloting compared to winner take all is revealing: three times more women legislators were elected in Australia and Germany by PR in the 1987-1993 elections. Further more, countries that use PR exclusively elect many times more women to their legislatures compared to countries that use winner take all exclusively, with countries like Sweden (41%), Finland (39%), Norway (36%), Denmark (33%), The Netherlands (29%), and South Africa (25%) leading the way. Despite the so-called "Year of the Woman," the U.S. is stuck at only 11% women in the U.S. House and 8% in the Senate, ranking 24th of 54 western democracies.

The three types of proportional systems allowed by the McKinney bill -- preference voting, cumulative voting and limited voting -- also offer something for proponents of third parties and independent politics. At her press conference, McKinney criticized what she called "the inherent flaws in our winner take all electoral assumption which gives 100% of the power to the candidate who can secure 50% of the vote plus one...As a Democrat, I firmly believe that the 30% of Republicans living in a 70% Democrati c district should at least have some representation." This elegy to electoral fairness and representation echoed similar words last year from law professor and rejected Clinton Justice Department nominee Lani Guinier in a New York Times interview.

No question, third party efforts like the New Party, Green Party, Ross Perot's Independence/Reform Party, Labor Party Advocates and others would find the going much easier in a proportional system using multi-seat districts where 10% of the popular vote w ins 10% of the seats. The success of the German Green Party, currently the third largest party in the Bundestag, demonstrates the potential for third parties under PR. Most third party efforts in the U.S. have already endorsed the idea. So have former Republican Congressman and presidential candidate John Anderson, progressives Jesse Jackson and Lani Guinier, conservatives Kevin Phillips and Michael Lind, and the editors of USA Today. Justice Clarence Thomas, more known for his glowering role in disma ntling affirmative action, has written favorably in his legal opinions of proportional systems as a race-neutral method of giving representation to racial minorities. Indeed, there is a startling convergence of thought on the subject taking place from b oth the left and the right, slowly gathering momentum since race conscious districts first came under attack in 1993.

"Proportional systems are the next logical step in reform," says Rob Richie, director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. The Center advised Rep. McKinney in drafting her bill, and has advised plaintiffs, defendants and judges in many of the most exp losive voting rights cases of the past two years. "To give voters the real choices and new voices they seek, you cannot get around the 'great wall' of single-seat districts that shield far too many legislators from competition and restrict electoral oppo rtunities for racial and political minorities. You cannot ignore proportional systems that increase voter turnout, substantive campaigns, and women's and racial representation while realizing the democratic ideal: majority rule, minority representation. "

McKinney says there is "a lot of enthusiasm" for her bill among other legislators from majority-black districts. But she needs support of the Republican leadership if the bill is going to have a chance. Republicans' recent conversion to "color blindness" and "fairness for all colors" has provided them just the rationale they needed to dismantle affirmative action, racial set-asides, indeed the Voting Rights Act itself. But McKinney's gambit turns the Republicans on their head. Clearly, without the tool of race-conscious districting in a majoritarian winner take all system, proportional representation offers racial minorities the only chance they have left for representation.

But the effect of HR 2545 will also be to open up Congress to third parties, allowing them to compete on a nearly-even playing field with the two major parties. As a result of the McKinney bill, both the Democrats and the Republicans have to choose betwee n either protecting their two party duopoly, or doing what's right to allow electoral opportunity for Americans of color and women candidates.

As both parties have demonstrated on many occasions, fairness is all well and good -- as long as it works to their advantage.

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