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The problem for representative diversity isn't runoffs, it's single-winner elections

Rep. James Clyburn

Rep. James Clyburn is right that our electoral systems don't serve the interest of minority representation. But he misdiagnoses the problem, writes Eckam.

Saul Loeb - Pool/Getty Images

Eckam is a Texas software developer, graphic designer and the author of "Beyond Two Parties: Why America Needs a Multiparty System and How We Can Have It" (self-published, 2019).


It's great that Americans are considering a variety of ideas for reforming our democracy. But one idea needs to be clarified — that the "50 percent plus one" rule, or majority requirement for winning an election, is racist and should be abolished.

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking Black member of Congress, has labeled this requirement among the "most pernicious devices" developed in the South to "disenfranchise Black voters, purge Black elected officials and relegate Black people to second-class citizenship."

Clyburn's concern is that when a Black candidate gets a plurality in the first round of an election where a majority is required to win, white voters can rally around the white candidate in the runoff and deny Black voters representation. If Georgia didn't have runoffs — that is, if it accepted a plurality for victory — then Raphael Warnock would have won his Senate seat in November without needing to compete again in January.

However, if plurality-win had been the system in place, we wouldn't have seen a robust field of eight Democrats and six Republicans competing for that same Senate seat.

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And it isn't only Black voters who can carry their candidate to victory by unifying against a divided field in a plurality contest. White voters, or indeed any unified voting bloc, can do the same.

It's true the history of runoffs in Georgia is steeped in racism. They were instituted in the 1960s by racist legislators who saw them as a way to block minority representation.

But runoff elections began much earlier — in the 1860s in Germany — and have since continued to be used all over the world.

Runoffs let voters decide both rounds of an election. Previously, in the event of no majority in the first round, the final say was often given to an elite body such as a legislative assembly. For example, the House had the task of picking the president in 1800 and 1824, when no candidate won a majority in the Electoral College.

Alexander Hamilton explained the need for such a "contingency election" in Federalist 68 by calling it "unsafe to permit less than a majority to be conclusive."

The idea goes back even further. The Golden Bull of 1356 instituted a majority requirement in the choice of a new Holy Roman Emperor by a small group of "prince electors." Clearly, this principle has an appeal of long standing. But why?

To answer that, it'll help to understand what sort of "safety" Hamilton had in mind.

Imagine a plurality election between Able, Baker and Charlie. Suppose each gets about a third of the votes but Charlie gets a few more and so he wins. Then suppose the thing that supporters of Able and Baker agree on more than anything else is their hatred of Charlie.

For Charlie to end up representing such an electorate is a misfire of representative democracy. If Baker had stayed out of the race then Able would have won easily, and vice versa. In other words, plurality voting has enabled a coordination failure, yielding an unrepresentative outcome.

Surely, what Hamilton meant by "safety" is this: ensuring that one person elected to represent a group of people is not opposed by a majority of those people.

Note that "majority" doesn't mean a majority race in this contest; it means a group of people who vote together on a political question. In general, such a group will include people of diverse racial backgrounds.

To be sure, runoffs do have problems, starting with turnout. Many will find it impossible, for work or logistical reasons, to get to the polls a second time for the same election. (Ranked-choice voting is one potential solution to this problem.) The way elections are administered can also be unfair and discriminatory. And, there is a long, ugly and sadly continuing history of voter suppression that needs fixing.

Clyburn is right that our electoral systems are set up badly and don't serve the interest of minority representation. But he misdiagnoses the problem in blaming the 50 percent plus one requirement.

The real problem? We have single-winner elections where we should be electing multiple winners.

Unlike elections for singular offices like mayor or governor, filling seats in a legislative body does not require a "winner take all" approach. We can assign several members to represent each district and use a proportional election method to give fair representation to both majorities and minorities. (One proven example is the "single transferable vote" method.) There is also legislation that would remake the U.S. House of Representatives this way.

Proportional representation means more accurate representation. A representative assembly, John Adams wrote in 1776, "should be in miniature, an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them. That it may be the interest of this Assembly to do strict justice at all times, it should be an equal representation, or in other words equal interest among the people should have equal interest in it."

It's hard to paint an accurate portrait of ourselves if we start by dividing into single-member districts.

Clyburn supports proportional representation. It seems like Adams would have, too.

Electing both of a state's senators at the same time presents a rare opportunity to use a proportional method of election to that body — one that Georgia could have chosen to take this month. Electing one Democrat and one Republican would have meant a fairer, more exact reflection of the state's electorate.

Citizens of all persuasions should recognize the value of more fairness in our electoral systems. It needn't be a partisan issue. (And, at the city level, Republicans might gain a lot from proportionality.)

Yes, we can do much better than single-seat legislative runoff elections. We should institute proportionality wherever we can. But when we're electing someone to a singular office, we need the majority requirement to help overcome vote-splitting and produce greater legitimacy for the winner. We should not cast aside this essential principle.

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