Alternative Voting Remedies towards Increasing Minority Representation?

by John Parker // Published June 15, 2009

Voting Rights advocates are awaiting a landmark decision by the Supreme Court to determine the future of the Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. In light of the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number 1 v. Holder (NAMUDNO) Supreme Court civil rights case, this maybe a time for voting right advocates and allying organizations to consider proportional and semi-proportional voting systems as remedies to increase opportunities for racial minorities to elect their preferred candidates of choice. The NAMUDNO case centers on the constitutionality of the Section 5 amendment to the Voting Rights Act (1965), which mandates the federal government to have oversight over all election procedures in covered jurisdictions. Section 5 also provides an exit clause called the bail out provision under which certain political subdivisions may seek exemption from pre-clearance.

The plaintiff in question, Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One, is a small utility district in Texas that provides waste collection and other public works services for 3,500 residents, and has elections to elect its board of directors. Elections were previously held in home garages within the district. However, when the district wanted to move its polling places to an elementary school in 2004, the district was required to receive pre-clearance with the Department of Justice, because it was in a Section 5 jurisdiction. In its lawsuit, the district sought to be removed (via bailout) from Section 5 requirements as it did not engage in voting discrimination practices.

While the success of the Voting Rights Act and the Section 5 amendment have contributed to an increase in minority voter turnout and the number of minority legislators in state houses and in Congress (from six to forty-two), various Supreme Court rulings over the last two decades (Bartlett v. Strickland, Georgia v. Ashcroft, Shaw v. Reno, and Miller v. Johnson) have limited the ability for state legislators to draw minority opportunity districts for state and federal offices. In light of the recent discourse over the effectiveness of the VRA, it is also important to consider additional approaches toward electing minority representatives into legislative bodies.

What are some possible alternatives to the current winner-take-all system that is currently used to elect many officials that can continue to assist minority groups and voter rights organizations? Initiating alternative voting systems may help to ensure fairer and increased representation in elected offices. Some of these alternative voting systems include cumulative voting, instant runoff voting, and proportional voting systems like choice voting. Each of these alternative voting systems have multiple benefits such as increasing the opportunity for minorities to run for elect office, increase voter turnout, and increase minority representation. None of the alternative voting systems are perfect. Any of these alternative systems cannot fully eradicate voter discrimination or intimidation; some sort of federal regulation (such as the Voting Rights Act) may always be needed in order to enforce the law and prevent such discriminatory practices, especially in areas where a history of past voter discrimination has occurred.

The fact that the constitutionality of the Section 5 amendment of the Voting Rights Act is being challenged should raise alarms among activists in the voting rights and civil rights communities. Serious consideration should be given to alternative voting systems such as the ones mentioned above, as minority groups need to find ways to increase their membership in state legislatures and Congress.