A Free and Fair Vote Gives Power to the People

Krist Novoselic // Published August 18, 2008 in The Seattle Weekly
As you vote in today’s primary for your representative in Olympia, your friends in other legislative districts across town, the state, and possibly even the street are looking at a different set of choices. The way legislative districts are drawn is at the heart of our elections. Demographics, geography, and political considerations come together in a sophisticated process that can determine the difference between a safe seat and a competitive election.

Unfortunately, this system has bred both disenfranchisement among voters and a lack of interest from potential candidates. It’s also had a sorry history regarding race relations. Before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), lines could be drawn straight through areas with high minority populations, splitting the bloc of voters and deliberately preventing them from electing a candidate to represent their interests. The VRA makes it illegal to draw district lines with the intention of discriminating on race.

Marilyn Montgomery, the Constitution Partycandidate for Washington Secretary of State, however, calls for a repeal of the Voting Rights Act. Montgomery is calling for elections that are free and fair but offers no alternative other than a simple repeal of the VRA. While I don’t think it’s a good idea to repeal the VRA, we can speak to its objectives and at the same time widen the franchise of voting for everyone in a way that is free and fair.

The process today is not without error. After district lines are drawn, the party affiliation of that seat in the legislature often becomes apparent — Republican, Democrat — and there is little incentive to challenge an incumbentwho enjoys majority voter support. This is why so many races are uncontested or uncompetitive. Challengers can’t get the support they need, and with the election a foregone conclusion, many voters tend not to participate.

Harvard law professor Lani Guinier, who has many perspectives regarding the VRA, states that litigation has replaced the broad-based political participation of the civil-rights era. It’s lawyers who are fighting for fairness. And where there’s disenfranchisement through discriminatory district lines, it is remedied with a court order and a majority-minority district is created. Basically, this permanently settles the election for one party and triggers the lackluster dynamic described above. Prof. Guinier offers solutions that would increase the kind of electoral competition that invites more broad-based participation for everyone. She proposes multi-member districts with Cumulative Voting.

If you’re voting today, you know that Washington already has multi-member State House districts. Cumulative Voting would work very easily here. Every voter would have two votes, one for each seat in their House district. You could choose to give your votes to two different candidates or to give both to a single candidate. (The system is the same no matter the number of seats in a district: For example, in a three-member district, a voter would have three votes.)

Voters find themselves in the minority in their district not necessarily because of their ideas or beliefs. Someone drew the lines that grouped enough similar-thinking voters into a majority. This basically settled the election. With Cumulative Voting, if enough voters in the minority can support a single candidate, they could get them elected by accumulating their two votes. With this kind of inclusive voting system, the majority and minority of voters get an opportunity to elect someone.

Cumulative voting is just one possible alternative to our present system.

Elections need not be settled by the people who draw district lines. Multi-member districts with Cumulative Voting helps to take the power and sophistication out of their hands and puts it in the hands of voters—where it belongs! This is my notion of free and fair.