South African Elections Show the Way Toward Racial Fairness

by Steven Hill
This article has been published in The Humanist
The miraculous triumph of democracy in South Africa is the culmination of a remarkable year for proportional representation (PR), that "other" voting system used by most of the democratic world. Globally, and even nationally here in the United States, th e past year has seen an astonishing array of countries, organizations and individuals flocking to the PR standard, further isolating the few remaining countries -- the United States included -- that continue to use the winner-take-all system.

The first multiracial elections in South Africa were completed using party list PR. The South Africans never even seriously considered the winner-take-all system, because it was universally recognized that the success of their new democracy depended on t he degree to which their government reflected the racial and political diversity of their society -- never a strong point of winner-take-all systems.

In South Africa, the white minority comprises about 14% of the population, with blacks comprising 74%, coloreds 9% and Asians 3%. By comparison, here in the United States the situation is exactly reversed, with whites comprising 75%, blacks 12%, Hispanic s 9%, Asians 3% and Native Americans 1%. At times, the clash of race and politics in the United States approaches the intensity of South Africa, yet the United States continues to use a 200 year old system of democracy that routinely denies representatio n to its racial and poltical minorities unless one can draw a gerrymandered district around them -- not always an easy task, and always a controversial one.

The South Africans were smart. They opted for a proportional representation voting system, and so the white minority voters will not be shut out, nor will an effective vote be limited only to those who happen to live in the right district. This is becau se with PR, legislative seats are weighted equally in multi-member districts; for instance, in a ten seat district each seat is worth about 10% of the at-large vote. If a party wins 40% of the vote they get four seats, 20% wins two seats. If an independ ent candidate wins 10% of the vote, they too would win a seat. A party or candidate need not come in first to win a seat, significantly opening the door to political and racial minorities, and to third, fourth, fifth parties and more.

Winner-take-all systems are notorious for not being very hospitable to third parties, or to racial and political minorities. There have been over 1000 third parties in the history of U.S. politics, but only one of these ever lasted -- the Republican Part y. This is because votes going to a losing candidate are wasted, even if that candidate garners 49.9% of the vote. Voters sense this, and so they often don't vote for the candidate they like, but rather for the one that stands the best chance of winning -- the "lesser of two evils." The winner-take-all system leaves significant blocs of voters unrepresented, and renders most political races non-competitive. Increasingly, many voters don't even bother to vote, which is why the winner-take-all democrac ies are near the bottom of the list in turns of voter turnout. The United States is next to last in voter turnout, with only 55% of eligible voters participating in the 1992 presidential election, and far less in off-year elections.

No wonder then, that New Zealanders, after using the winner-take-all system for over 140 years, voted in a national referendum last November to scrap it in favor of the "mixed member" PR system popularized by Germany. In addition over the past year, Japa n, Russia, Mexico and Italy all adopted a version of the German "mixed member" system, which combines single member geographic-based districts like those used in the U.S. with party list PR. Significantly, in the conversion from Communism to democracy, a ll the countries of Eastern Europe except Serbia and Ukraine adopted some form of PR. Currently, the only governments still using strictly winner-take-all are Serbia, Ukraine, Great Britain, the U.S., France, Pakistan, Canada, and India. All other democ racies in the world use some form of PR.

PR gains spotlight in the U.S.

In the United States, the clamor for proportional representation is slower, but gaining steam. Recent developments in voting rights cases in North Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia, and Texas have pushed PR onto center stage of national politics. A U.S. Supr eme Court ruling, Shaw v. Reno, in July 1993 called into question the use of racially gerrymandered districts as a remedy for electing racial minority representatives, opening the gates to a flood of lawsuits. The high court threw out a majority black di strict that snakes for 160 miles across North Carolina, no wider than the interstate in places. The states and localities are now caught between a rock and a hard place: as a result of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and subsequent amendments in 1982, th ey have a mandate that their legislative bodies must be racially inclusive, or they may be subject to a voting rights lawsuit. But now, depending on how distorted they draw the districts to satisfy that voting rights mandate, they may be subject to a law suit by either dissatisfied white voters, or by racial minority voters who have been excluded from the gerrymander, pitting minority groups against each other.

PR has been proposed as a race-neutral method of remedying minority vote dilution, that has the added benefit of circumventing the controversial and partisan process of drawing district lines. Ironically, these developments have brought back to the limel ight Professor Lani Guinier, the Clinton Administration's rejected nominee to the Justice Department, who is widely recognized as the foremost proponent in the United States of alternative voting schemes like proportional representation.

"I think this debate is going to take root," said Professor Guinier in a recent interview with the New York Times, "because I think many Americans, not just racial minorities, feel alienated from politicians who ostensibly represent them. For a premier d emocracy, our level of [voter] participation is an embarrassment. Some may say that reflects contentment with the status quo. I think it represents...rational behavior by voters who realize their votes don't count."

Still, the parameters of the debate in the U.S. at this point remain quite limited. Few are seriously discussing the use of, for instance, the type of PR that has been used successfully to elect the city council of Cambridge MA since 1941. Called prefer ence voting, it is a more proportional form of non-partisan voting than Professor Guinier's preferred cumulative voting. With cumulative voting, a voter gets as many votes as there are candidates running, and may give multiple votes to their favorite can didate. With preference voting, voters rank candidates in their order of preference, and candidates win by reaching the threshold of votes established for each seat. Surplus votes above the threshold are transferred to the next preference on voters' list s, so very few votes are wasted. Besides electing Cambridge's council, preference voting is also used to elect the national governments for the Republic of Ireland, Malta, and the Australian upper chamber. Until the 1950's, preference voting was used by 22 U.S. cities to elect their local governments, including New York, Cincinnati and Boulder CO, until it was tossed out in a fit of McCarthyite and racist backlash because it elected a few Communists and blacks to office. The history of proportional rep resentation in this country, like so much about the McCarthy era, is largely a buried one. Try going to your local library and checking out a book on the subject -- most of the available resources are twenty years old or more, written for academic audien ces. In 1993, Columbia University Press published New Choices, Real Voices by Douglas Amy, the first layperson's resource on PR published in the U.S. in over thirty years.

The recent global popularity of the German "mixed member" system suggests some interesting possibilities for U.S. voters. The German system's combination of U.S.-style geographic districts with a party list PR system that elects political parties in prop ortion to their share of the popular vote would be very familiar to U.S. voters. Voters have two votes in the German system: one for their district representative, just like U.S. voters have now, and one for their desired party. This system has allowed the Green Party to be a potent force in German politics; the Greens have never won any district seats, but they usually win seats in the proportional vote, and in the upcoming elections are projected to win the third highest number of seats in the nation al Bundestag. This form of PR -- as well as any of the other various forms of PR -- could easily be adopted in the U.S. at state and federal levels without constitutional amendments, merely by changing applicable laws.

Sparks trying to catch fire in the grass roots

Indeed, grass roots efforts are springing up to bring about such changes in the United States. The Center for Voting and Democracy was established in 1992 to educate about alternatives to the winner-take-all system. CV&D's efforts have spawned local org anizations, like Citizens for Proportional Representation in Washington state, the Fair Ballot Alliance in Massachusetts, and other local organizations in Minnesota, Arizona, Northern California, North Carolina and Washington DC, that are busily educating , lobbying, and otherwise spreading the gospel about PR. A Michigan group, People Achieving Legislative Power, has launched an initiative drive to change their state government to a unicameral legislature elected by PR. Seattle proponents are readying a voters initiative to change their city council to Cambridge's preference voting, and Cincinnati voters narrowly rejected such an initiative in 1991. The task of conversion is daunting, say PR advocates, but they are optimistic that the logic and fairnes s of PR, particularly when applied to the current confusion swirling around voting rights cases and racially gerrymandered districts, will win out over time.

The United States has one of the world's oldest -- and some say most old-fashioned -- democracies. Proponents of PR say that the U.S. needs a voting system for the twenty first century, not the eighteenth century. A twenty first century voting system mu st be able to accommodate a multiracial, multi-partisan society, definitely not a strong point of winner-take-all. The South Africans recognized this, and gave themselves the gift of a modern multiparty democracy. Proponents of PR are hoping that the Un ited States will wake up and follow suit. Otherwise, they say, the U.S. will continue to be plagued by the tensions of race and politics, stumbling in and out of voting rights lawsuits, as a result of the inherent exclusivity of its winner-take-all votin g system.

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