The News Tribune (N.J.)
December 8, 1991

In long run, voting by district
may limit minorities' influence


There are two schools of thought about whether minorities are better off politically in an at-large system or in a single-member district.

    Some, including leading civil-rights groups and town officials who have callenged at-large systems, say that minorities have made concrete gains in those towns since they started to elect their own representatives.

    Yet, others argue that division of a town into separate districts can work against minorities by limiting their influence to one council seat and making the rest of the council unresponsive to their concerns.

Abigail Thernstrom, a faculty member of Boston University and author of the book "Whose Votes Count," says that in the absence of outright racism that shuts them out of the system completely, minorities can have more power in at-large schemes.

    "Where you can say, look, from here to kingdom come there is no chance of a black being elected, then yes, I think there is a case to be made [for districts] in which one black is protected from white competition," Thernstrom said.

    "But where you have blacks as players in the electoral process ... where there is some potential integration, there is a high price to be paid for fencing blacks off in what is essentially a Jim Crow district," she said.

    The best strategy, Thernstrom said, is for the minority population to seek its maximum influence on all the elected officials. If blacks and Hispanics voted at higher rates and had the political organization to make their concerns known, they could get better results, even without the election of a single minority.

    But translating that potential into actual political clout in a disorganized or disinterested community is difficult, she acknowledged. She recommended "door-to-door" organization of people into an effective group.

Neil Bradley, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union's southern regional office in Atlanta, disagreed with Thernstrom's philosophy.

    "That is a sort of a mainstream defense argument" made by towns resisting the change to ward systems, he said. He said he does not believe that a small minority can wield "meaningful influence" in at-large systems, but believes that even a single minority voice can make a difference on a board or council.

    "What that one person does is ... brings to that body a different perspective. They [white officials] have to sit down with that one person," he said. "They may vote them down, but they have to listen to them."

That was the experience of a black councilman in Hopewell, Va., a town of about 24,000 inhabitants, about one-quarter of whom are black.

    The Rev. Curtis W. Harris has been a councilman there since Hopewell changed to a ward system in 1983. He said he lost seven at-large elections before the system was changed.

    Harris said he has been able to gain concrete benefits for his 75-percent-black ward through a combination of deal-making, publicity, and threats to return to court. For example, he said, he supported closing a drainage ditch in a white section of town and installing underground storm sewer lines, but brought that up when he lobbied for a similar drainage project in a black neighborhood.

    He said he used a similar strategy to get a new school built in the black community, after supporting a school in the white community.

    "I'm one of seven," Harris said. "And what they say about me is that you can bet your life that Curtis Harris is going to do his homework, that he's going to come to the council meeting more prepared than anybody else."

About 65 miles away, the city of Norfolk, Va., is about to change to a ward system after an eight-year court battle.

    "This was probably the leading case in the country," said James F. Gay, a lawyer who was involved in the case on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "Reason I say that: As a result of what happened here, Cincinnati and Dallas both decided to set up single-member districts."

    The lawsuit charged that the Norfolk system was discriminatory because blacks, who make up 35 to 40 percent of the population of Norfolk, were historically underrepresented on the City Council. A black candidate needed about a quarter of the white vote to be elected, Gay said.

    The city had black council members under a ward system until the change to at-large in 1917, he said. After that, the council remained all white until 1968. Some blacks have served since then, but Gay expects next year's election to make a difference.

    He said he did not believe in the argument that blacks were better off under the at-large system.

    "It flies in the face of what you're saying. You want to have representation," he said. "Right now you have six on council [in Norfolk], so all six are ignoring the black vote."

    He said that because departmental responsibilities are divided among council members, even one black council member is guaranteed some authority. He also said that a black council member helps get blacks hired in city government by making them aware of job openings and pressing for their appointment.

    "I remember when I was in college, you'd go down to City Hall to pay your taxes and you didn't see one black secretary," he said.

An argument similar to Thernstrom's was made in court by Timothy O'Rourke, a professor at the University of Virginia's Center for Public Service. He was an expert witness for Norfolk.

    O'Rourke said the at-large system does not necessarily deprive minorities of political power, and each system must be judged on its merits.

    "Let's suppose that the white council members who are now on there are generally responsive to the interests of blacks and Hispanics," O'Rourke said. "If that's the case, then not only would that seem to say that blacks and Hispanics are proportionally represented, but as a general rule they are better off."

    He also said the ward system introduces some political problems unrelated to race. Because ward politicians represent a narrower portion of the population, they can be more ideologically extreme than at-large politicians. They also have reason to put the interests of their own neighborhoods above those of the town as a whole, he said.

The NAACP's Gay and Boston University's Thernstrom both said they believed in the goodwill of most white representatives toward minority concerns, but came to different conclusions about its implications for at-large government.

    Thernstrom said she is "optimistic about the decency of Americans on the subject of racial politics." She said she believes most white council members would respond to the legitimate concerns of minorities they represent if those concerns were made known.

    But Gay argued that it is important to have a prominent minority voice on the council, and count on the white council members to listen.

    "I think many whites would respond favorably to situations if they knew about them. Those concerns will at least come to the table under the ward system," he said.