… but it’s not a complete cure to extremism in politics.
Michael Rodgers made a reference to Cindi Scoppe’s column earlier in the week advocating cumulative voting as a cure to the extremism that single-member districts tend to foster.
The problem is this: Lawmakers draw safe districts for themselves — or rather, for members of their own party. They draw them so safe that the general election becomes meaningless. The primary of the dominant party becomes the election. That puts the loudest, most passionate elements in that one party in the driver’s seat. From that point on, representatives who want to get elected are constantly kowtowing to the more extreme elements in their own party, and couldn’t care less about what moderates in their own party, or independents, and certainly not members of the opposition, want them to do.
And so we get entire bodies of elected officials — Congress being the most extreme example of the sickness — who are there not for the good of the country, but as agents of the most extreme elements in their respective parties. Instead of a deliberative process, you get a perpetual mudball fight, and government becomes dysfunctional.
(Cindi traces the problem back to the race-based districting that was the unintended consequence of the Voting Rights Act. That, too, is a problem, in that it trains representatives to think of themselves as representing only constituents of a particular race. Which can indeed lead to a type of extremism, and has done so in South Carolina. But a system in which drawing districts to protect incumbency is allowed by the courts is a broader problem. In any case, when legislators go through the process of choosing their constituents, which is what redistricting has become, they do both of those things — choose by race and by party.)
Cindi has long favored a creative solution to the problem:
The key is to return to multi-member districts — the norm before the Voting Rights Act essentially outlawed them because they shut out minority voters — but with a twist that prevents the dilution of minority voting strength while reclaiming the centrist, community-focused effect of the old multi-member districts.
Let’s take the Richland County Council for an example of how this would work. Under cumulative voting, candidates for all 11 council seats would run countywide. Voters would get 11 votes, like they did in the old multi-member districts. But they could divide the votes any way they wanted — casting one in each race, giving all 11 votes to a single candidate or doling them out in any other combination. Under a modified version called limited-transfer voting, voters would have just one vote, to cast in whichever race was most important to them. In other words, voters could work together across the county to essentially create the “district” they lived in.
It wouldn’t be practical to have statewide races for legislative seats, but we could make Richland County a four-seat Senate district, Lexington County a seven-seat House district. We could even make Richland and Lexington county an eight-seat Senate district.
These modified proportional systems have been promoted for years as a way to stop fixating on race in our elections and our government, but they also would empower all voters and give us a greater sense of ownership in our government, because elected officials wouldn’t dare to write off those they consider the partisan or racial or ideological minority in their district. The fact that county residents could vote for incumbents or challengers for any or all of the seven House seats in Lexington County means the representatives would need to appeal to all of them….
I’ve always thought the solution sounded a bit confusing. But I think it would be worth trying.
That said, cumulative voting would not solve all of our problems with extremism in SC. It would do nothing, directly, to address one of the examples Cindi cites in her column:
A Theatre de l’Absurde production starring a U.S. senator who could easily win a general election, no matter who his opponent, being seriously challenged in his party primary by obscure opponents who can most charitably be called political outliers…
Even without districts of any kind, radicalism has long been a feature of SC politics. The only cure for Lindsey Graham’s problem would be a reform that would have little chance of being enacted: Repeal the 17th Amendment, and have U.S. senators elected by the Legislatures again, as the Framers intended (House members were supposed to be elected by the people; senators were supposed to represent states, not bodies of voters). But of course, that would only work reliably after you do something to make the Legislature more moderate — something like what Cindi suggests.