Winner take some

A new kind of electoral affirmative action could mean more power for minorities

Published October 16, 1996 11:41AM (EDT)

despite Bob Dole's vow to fight for California's 54 electoral votes, the most significant vote in the Golden State on Nov. 5 may not be for president. Instead, it could be for a little-known charter amendment in San Francisco, one that supporters say could mark the death knell of winner-take-all elections in cities across the country.

If passed, Proposition H would install a system of preference voting giving minority voters in San Francisco a real chance to win representation. The campaign is being watched carefully in other urban areas which are looking for ways to enfranchise increasingly fragmented minority groups within their multi-minority populations.

The term used to describe the new system -- proportional representation -- has gained currency since law professor
Lani Guinier urged its adoption as a way of politically empowering blacks and other minorities. Her stand cost her the nomination as civil rights head of the Justice Department, but the proposal continues to win converts, both nationally and locally.

Today, in addition to the San Francisco initiative, there are two bills in
Congress on proportional representation -- one sponsored by Rep. Pat
Williams (D-Mont.) and another by Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.).
Many small communities have adopted proportional systems for elections to school boards and other local bodies. Chicago has spent more than $6 million to defend its one-seat wards against competing voting rights suits from Latinos and African Americans. Similar inter-minority battles have been waged in Detroit, Los Angeles and New York.

San Francisco's Proposition H is the most high-profile campaign on the issue yet. Modeled after a system in Cambridge, Mass., it would replace the current winner-take-all, at-large voting system for the city's Supervisors with one where
voters would list their choices in order of preference -- according to how many seats are up for election. If there are five seats, a winning candidate would need one-fifth of the total vote, plus one. Votes they receive over that would be redistributed to other candidates, according to their voters' ranking of the other candidates. Under San Francisco's current system, candidates rarely win with less than 40 percent of the citywide vote. Supporters say that this system will ensure greater representation for minorities and other self-defined groups of like-minded voters in proportion to their voting strength.

San Francisco has flip-flopped between the current at-large system and old-style
ward elections (called "districts" in the city) since the 1970s. A
citizens task force appointed in 1994 was widely expected to endorse
district elections, but the group discovered that given the city's extraordinary
diversity -- including over 35 strongly-defined neighborhoods, four major
racial groups, a plethora of ethnic sub-groups, gays and lesbians,
conservatives, progressives, liberals, moderates and everything in
between -- it was almost impossible to draw "fair" district lines.

After a year-long community education process, the Board of Supervisors
voted to put two choices before the voters: district elections (Proposition
G) and preference voting (Proposition H). The current Board of Supervisors overwhelmingly endorsed Proposition H, as have numerous urban

A win for Proposition H is far from assured, but
supporters are cautiously optimistic. If preference voting is successfully
implemented in a city with more voters than 7 states, San Francisco
could become the model for urban reformers grappling with how to give
diverse communities access to the making of public policy.

Rob Richie is executive director of The Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington,
D.C. Steven Hill is the Center's West Coast director based in San
) Pacific News Service

Quote of the day

Sauce for the goose

"With a sardonic ruthlessness reminiscent of Joseph McCarthy, Dole hurled a continuous barrage of unsubstantiated charges at us. I was doubly shocked that he would so openly intrude in a federal prosecution and would permit himself to be used by Caspar Weinberger's attorneys. This type of influence-peddling is generally left to party fixers."

-- Lawrence Walsh, the government-appointed independent prosecutor who investigated the Iran-Contra case and brought an indictment against former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger (pardoned before the trial by Ronald Reagan) in the chapter entitled "Bob Dole, Pardon Advocate," from his forthcoming book "Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-up."

(From "On the Question Of Presidential Pardons, Dole Has Taken Both Sides" in
New York Times

By Rob Richie

Rob Richie is the president and CEO of FairVote

MORE FROM Rob Richie

By Steven Hill

Related Topics ------------------------------------------