Toward 21st Century Democracy

Against the Current, No. 65, November/December 1996

an interview with Steven Hill

STEVEN HILL IS West Coast coordinator for the Center for Voting and Democracy. He spoke by phone with David Finkel of the ATC editorial board.

Against the Current: First, can you tell us about the ballot initiative for proportional representation taking place in San Francisco? This issue of our magazine will go to press before Election Day, so we won’t yet know the results, but are you optimistic about winning?

Steven Hill: Very optimistic. In fact, there’s no organized opposition.

The initiative, called Proposition H, would change the structure of San Francisco city/county government (the city and county being the same in this case). The Board of Supervisors would be elected by a form of proportional representation (PR) called “preference voting,” where you would list your first choice, second, third and so on.

If your first-choice candidate loses your vote automatically switches to your second choice, then third choice, etc. so that your vote is not “wasted.” A candidate would need fewer (first-place) votes to win a seat. Right now you need roughly 100,000 votes, or about 37% of the total; with our proposed system you’d need about 15%.

ATC: Is this an at-large election as opposed to voting by districts?

SH: Actually, we’re trying to get rid of that term “at-large.” We call it “multiseat” as opposed to single-seat voting districts.

ATC: Are African-American and other minority communities, and civil rights forces, supportive of this reform?

SH: Very much so; civil rights forces have been among the biggest supporters. We have MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund) as a major endorser, along with letters of endorsement from Jesse Jackson, Lani Guinier and the Black Leadership Forum. The NAACP here is still discussing it, but they aren’t very strong in San Francisco.

Rev. Amos Brown, who is the only current Black member of the Board of Supervisors, voted to put preferential voting on the ballot. He also voted against going to (single-seat) districts (which were proposed as a method for creating minority representation), saying in his remarks that you couldn’t draw a district for African Americans in this city.

 ATC: What are the chances for success?

SH: Excellent. We also have endorsements from the Democratic Central Committee, and major labor groups including all the big CIO locals. In the official voters’ handbook there won’t even be an opposing statement.

ATC: Can you tell us about PR initiatives happening elsewhere?

SH: Not in this election. But in Seattle, where there isn’t a time limit on collecting signatures, they have about 20,000 of the 30,000 they’ll need to get on the ballot, either next March or November.

In Cincinnati it looks like PR will be on the ballot in March. In that city they had a preferential voting system until the 1950s, when they elected the first Black representative to the city council. Then it was abolished, and they’ve been using the at-large plurality system ever since.

ATC: Why is there so much more resistance to PR at the statewide and national levels than at the municipal level?

SH: It’s not so much resistance, I think, as the fact that we are a young movement. We are starting to make a dent locally, then we plan to move upward to the state level. We’re already in discussion with bigger political forces–you need to get some big organizations on the program–toward a ballot initiative for the year 2000 for statewide offices.

On the federal level, since 1967 there’s been a law requiring single-seat districts for federal office. Ironically, this was passed as part of the civil rights legislation, to get rid of a system used in southern states where there were multiseat districts–but not proportional representation!–to block Black voters from electing anyone.

Now this has become a millstone around everyone’s neck. A bill has ben introduced by Rep. Cynthia McKinney from Georgia–who was elected from one of those districts specially drawn for minority representation, which the Supreme Court has just knocked down–that would give states the option of electing their Congressional delegation by preferential voting or another form of PR voting in multiseat districts. They couldn’t go back to the old “at-large” voting without PR.

That bill doesn’t have a chance at this moment. But we’re looking at a movement, as it picks up steam, which will make support for that kind of law a kind of litmus test for politicians.

It’s important to point out that establishing PR doesn’t require any kind of amendment or change to the Constitution only changes in local, state and that one federal law.

What’s going to fuel this whole debate will be the redistricting after the next census in 2000, as they see how difficult it is to draw districts for minorities under the new Supreme Court guidelines.

This will increase the momentum toward PR; there’s no other way to give proper representation for racial minorities. That’s why we’ve gotten so much support among minority communities in San Francisco, where we have a system that elects so few representatives of color that the mayor has to appoint them (e.g. to fill vacancies).

For the same reason, we’ve gotten a lot of support from the gay/lesbian community, a very highly politicized and mobilized group.

ATC: Does the activism around proportional representation intersect at all with the Ralph Nader campaign?

SH: A little bit. Nader himself actually hasn’t understood PR very well. We’ve been involved in a dialogue process with him because he had some unfortunate stereotyped images about it from the experiences of Italy and Israel.

[Editors’ note: In Israel, the balance of power between the two large electoral blocks has historically been held by small religious or single-issue parties. In Italy from the end of World War II until the 1990s, an endless series of weak coalition governments rose and fell–but this primarily because the Christian Democrats were able to remain the permanent governing party due to massive backing from the Vatican, Mafia, spectacularly corrupt big businessmen and the U.S. CIA.]

I was surprised that such a brilliant activist and reformer knew so little about PR. In an interview with David Barsamian he’d made some negative comments about it, which was a real problem since he’s the candidate of the Greens, whose major issues include PR!

We’ve had enough impact that he’s making some positive statements, although still not as positive as he is about a “none of the above” (NOTA) ballot option. Look, NOTA is a fine option for parties to use in order to avoid having some kind of loose cannon as their candidate, but it doesn’t add any representation either for racial minorities or political views.

ATC: Besides the question of fair representation for African-American and Latino communities, what is strategically important about PR?

SH: Is the goal to really create multiparty democracy, or simply to push the Democrats to become a more progressive party? Our view is that the goal should be to create a multiparty democracy in order to create more democratic accountability. That’s the point I spoke to at the recent Green party convention.

In the context of that strategic goal, some reforms become more important than others. Some reforms that sectors of the left are pushing–“fusion” as promoted by the New Party, for example (where a small party can run a major-party candidate on its ballot line), or even campaign finance reform–aren’t going to produce multiparty democracy.

Take campaign finance reform. I do consider myself a proponent of that, but proportional representation is much more important. Most proponents of campaign finance reform miss the fact that money doesn’t determine who wins, as much as it follows whomever is going to win.

It’s every ten years, when they carve up the political map, when most election results are predetermined. In the 1994 election you had this so-called Republican revolution, but over 90% of incumbents were re-elected and two-thirds of congressional districts were won by margins of twenty percentage points or more.

So for most voters, living in one or another of those districts, their reality is basically a one-party system. Those who contribute large amounts of money will give to people they know will win; what they’re buying is access and influence.

All the present attempts to reform campaign finances aren’t going to change that reality, which is fundamentally a product of single-seat winner-take-all districts in the two-party system.

The other point that’s missed is the real reason third parties don’t win seats. Local elections are expensive, true, but not prohibitively so. It’s not lack of money–it’s because they’re a minority viewpoint!

In Germany, where the Greens have never gotten over 10% of the vote, they win seats in parliament under a PR system. In the United States that gets you nothing.

ATC: Logically, then, there should also be interest in PR among third parties on the right, like the Libertarians?

SH: Yes, the Libertarians are very interested in PR and have endorsed it here in San Francisco, although I’m not sure they are exactly “right.” They’re a kind of odd mix . . .

ATC: Well, of all the conservatives who talk “small government,” they’re the ones who actually mean it. Is that what makes them odd?

SH: I guess. We’ve also been talking to the Reform Party, even had a meeting with one of Perot’s aides. Here in San Francisco the Republican Party even endorsed PR, because they’re a minority here.

ATC: For the Center for Voting and Democracy, what’s your own strategy looking beyond 1996?

SH: CVD is looking seriously at putting together a package of information, and working bodies, to start dealing with the whole redistricting process. I mentioned that the eensus year 2000 is pivotal.

There are now computer systems that can draw districts practically down to the household level, for maximum protection of incumbents. It’s no longer us picking the politicians, it’s more like the politicians picking us.

The dissenting opinions in the Supreme Court decision (outlawing districts drawn up for racial minority representation) spoke directly to this process. John Paul Stevens’ opinion notes how corrupt it is and the need for alternatives. But once you recognize that, there is no alternative except a proportional representation system.

As redistricting approaches again we will encourage efforts in all fifty states, and we think the way to do it is to create ex-officio bodies and task forces with notable personalities from the community to scrutinize the process.

ATC: In short, then, PR is a meaningful reform for two reasons: representation for racial minorities and for minority political viewpoints?

SH: Exactly. Let’s look again at San Francisco, where liberals actually have a lot of clout.

There’s two ways to win in politics here, based on two streams of money. One is the city Democratic Party machine, which of course is much more liberal than Clinton–around Willie Brown and Phil Burton. It’s actually kind of amazing that they’ve endorsed PR.

Or you go downtown to the Chamber of Commerce, the business money. In the last few elections the Democratic Party has been able to beat the downtown money consistently. In 1994, when a conservative on the Board of Supervisors, Anne Marie Conroy, was projected to win the Board presidency (which goes to the highest vote getter), she didn’t even win her seat.

In that election there was a high voter turnout against Proposition 187 (the attack on immigrants) and for 186 (single- payer health care), exactly the opposite of the statewide trend. That turnout also pulled in a gay candidate, Tom Ammiano, and produced one of the most liberal Boards of Supervisors in the state.

The Democratic machine also put in Willie Brown and elected a very progressive District Attorney. So they’re flexing their muscles and feeling pretty good.

But it creates a machine-type city. You may be for or against PR depending on whether you are in or out of that machine.

Yet that same 1994 election was the very first time an African-American candidate ever won a seat on the Board without having been originally appointed to the post.

ATC: So the point is that African-American or other representation shouldn’t be dependent on a mayoral patronage system, with all its corruption?

SH: Right. Willie Brown is pretty popular now, but there’s a sense that mayoral appointments historically haven’t necessarily reflected the community.

I like to say that the executive picking the representatives used to be called “monarchy.” Now it’s called “democracy.”

ATC 65, November-December 1996