Empower the voters

June 4, 2011

The debate about how to draw the boundaries of the four new Congressional districts in Texas should raise deeper questions about what should be represented.Gene Green (D, Houston) filed a lawsuit against the Republican Party’s redistricting map, which aims to ensure that all four seats will be won by Republicans and that at least one prominent liberal Democrat, Lloyd Doggett, will lose his seat which is based in Austin (San Antonio Express News, June 1, 2010). The Republican’s map continues a very long practice of gerrymandering election districts by the dominant party to benefit itself.The Republicans are continuing Tom DeLay’s claim that it is legitimate to maximize the current partisan majority expressed at the last election.Opponents primarily have argued for the creation of “Latino opportunity districts” in which an Hispanic politician could be elected by Hispanic voters. The argument is that the population increase in the state is largely due to the increase of Hispanics.Texas Hispanics and black leaders have long argued for greater group representation in a state that deliberately discriminated against them.

Partisanship and race/ethnicity are plausible ways to organize the electorate, but these claims are based on a notion of fixed interests. A democracy is better served by an electoral system that keeps voters’ options open. Just consider the case of a working class Hispanic voter who wants to elect an economic populist to tax the wealthy and fund public schools.Is that voter better served by an Hispanic Republican than a Democrat?Or what of the urban voter who might like to form an alliance with ranchers to protect water supplies and the environment from suburbanization. The key to the current debate is that politicians want to pick their voters rather than empower citizens to pick their leaders.

Currently the two big political parties maintain a duopoly on office partly because there can be only one winner in a single-member district.Moreover, when the politicians create homogeneous districts that favor their party, this reduces the incentive for voters to participate (and to keep elected officials accountable) because the outcome is a forgone conclusion.

One way to avoid much of the districting conflict is to create large, diverse multi-member districts.The U.S. Constitution does not require election by single-member districts. It is up to each state legislature to decide (within the laws of equal access to the ballot) how to elect its representatives to the U.S. House.

The entire state could be one district (as we are for U.S. Senate elections) and we could vote for all of the Representatives. Seats in Congress from Texas could be allocated to the parties based on the proportion of the vote each received.If the Republicans received 60% of the vote, they would receive 60% of the seats.If the Libertarian Party received 10% of the vote, then it would receive 10% of the seats.Perhaps the Raza Unida party would be resuscitated. That would empower citizens and wake up the Democrats and Republicans.Alternatively, the Legislature (or a non-partisan commission) could create several multiple member districts for each of the cities over 500,000 people – Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Houston, San Antonio – as well as districts for other regions of the state, all without the computer parsing of neighborhood voting blocs.For example, in a city that had three seats, each citizen would have three votes.The voter could cast her votes in any combination:one vote for each of three candidates or three votes for one candidate she especially wanted to win or two votes for one candidate and a third vote for another.This would help the voter decide her political identity. If a Latina feels strongly about ethnic identity, she could cast all three votes for an Hispanic candidate.But she also could cast one vote for an Hispanic – who could be a Republican – and two votes for an economic populist Democrat who happens to be white.

Texas is too big a state (and the U.S. is too big a country) to have only two political parties. An objective of changes in the electoral rules should be to empower voters to engage in self-government by seeking the political alliances that serve their needs.Compared to the current setup in which the politicians pre-determine the voter’s political identity, larger and more diverse districts that use some form of proportional representation would enable citizen action.