In Wednesday’s Austin American-Statesman (July 23, 2014), Shane R. Saum offered his prescription for fixing what ails Texas partisan politics. Analogizing the redistricting process to a flat tire, he recommended that we scrap “winner-take-all” elections altogether, and instead adopt some system of proportionate voting. (Saum, Shane, “Texas Redistricting Case Should Be About Failed Voting System,” Austin American-Statesman, p. A11 (July 23, 2014)).
Mr. Saum’s reasoning proceeded as follows – partisan gerrymandering is used to preserve the political advantage enjoyed by a ruling political clique. But if Texas had something more like a parliament, with legislative seats doled out in proportion to the votes received by various candidates, then voting turnout would go up, minority political representation would be assured, the party in charge would be forced to treat with a balancing and vigorous coalition of the Distinguished Opposition, and we would never need to worry about a lack of parity in voting strength when comparing voters across the state.
This is certainly an imaginative approach toward the issue of unequal representation and gerrymandering. It’s also a really weird way to sell the argument against winner-take-all, two-party systems, and most of the architecture of local, state, and federal representative government in the United States.
At the risk of seeming mean, I have to say that Mr. Saum’s well-intentioned suggestion is singularly naive, myopic, impractical, in direct conflict with our state constitution and the U.S. Constitution, and fundamentally at odds with political reality. Finally, and most sadly, proportionate representation is worse than no solution to violations of the Voting Rights Act. Proportionate representation is irrelevant to the problem of racial discrimination in the context of voting and elections.
Notice I didn’t say that proportionate representation is a bad thing in the abstract – as with so much in government, it’s neither good nor bad, just different. Governments that are organized to provide proportionate representation are perfectly workable, and we have examples of such governments from all over the world, usually in the context of national legislative assemblies like the Japanese Diet, the Israeli Knesset, the Parlamento Italiano, and so on. Various political parties run a slate of candidates, and then get to seat their candidates based on some formula that reflects the relative success of those parties in an election.
So one can certainly imagine an alternate universe version of Texas in which the state would be governed by a regional Chamber of Deputies whose membership would reflect various mainstream and fringe political ideologies, in varying proportion to their popularity. And one can also imagine a United States with a national parliament, maybe with a couple hundred members representing a dozen or more factions and parties, all jockeying intensely for numerical presence in a coalition government. And all this multiparty activity and coalition-building might very well suffer from as much or more racial discrimination as we see in our own world.
Two-party politics, winner-take-all, and partisan gerrymandering do not cause racial discrimination, and while these elements of the electoral process reflect racial discrimination, these elements are not symptomatic of racial discrimination.
The use of proportionate voting systems may aid in the elimination of two-party politics, first-past-the-post elections and single-member districts, but it will not eliminate racial discrimination. Racial discrimination is symptomatic of cultural tensions that will be expressed by and through one-party, two-party, any-party, no-party and multi-party politics, as evidenced by the ongoing present race-based exclusion of candidates and suppression of voters in not just partisan elections, but also in purely non-partisan local races, single-party nominating elections, party caucuses and conventions, and even in measure elections that answer pure policy issues, in which there are no candidates at all.