When Americans go to the polls next November to choose a President, virtually every citizen over the age of 18 will have the opportunity to cast a ballot. But while the rules of U.S. politics have changed over the past few decades, when it comes to choosing a President, the game is still rigged against most African-American voters.
The problem lies in the winner-take-all method that forty-eight of the fifty states use to select presidential electors, those shadowy figures whom our Constitution entrusts with the task of choosing the President. Because voting in U.S. presidential elections is sharply polarized along racial lines, this system prevents African-American voters in many states from choosing even a single elector. And that isn’t simply undemocratic–it might be illegal.
To understand the problem, consider what happened in Alabama in the 1992 election. George Bush won the state handily with 47.9 percent of the vote, claiming all nine of its electoral votes. But exit polls indicated that 91 percent of African-American voters in Alabama–who make up roughly two-ninths of the state’s electorate–voted for Bill Clinton. Despite this overwhelming level of support, Clinton, with only 30 percent of the white vote, didn’t secure a single electoral vote in Alabama. African-American voters might just as well have stayed home.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Article Two of the Constitu-tion gives each state a more or less free hand in deciding how its electors will be appointed. In fact, both Maine and Nebraska use an alternative method known as the Congressional district system. Under this system, only two of a state’s electors are chosen according to the statewide popular vote. The remaining electors are chosen based on the popular vote totals within each Congressional district. If Alabama had used a Congressional district system in 1992, Bush–who won six of the state’s seven Congressional districts–would have received only eight electoral votes. Clinton, who won the only Congressional district in which the majority of voters are African-American, would have received one electoral vote.
Many other systems of choosing electors are possible as well. Perhaps the simplest and most logical method is to allocate the electors in rough proportion to the statewide vote. In Alabama, Bush received 47.9 percent of the vote, Clinton 41.1 percent and Ross Perot 10.9 percent. Under a proportional system, Clinton and Bush would each have garnered four electoral votes and Perot one.
Precisely because other systems for choosing electors are possible, the winner-take-all rule may violate federal law. In 1982 Congress amended the Voting Rights Act to make illegal any voting systems that result in discrimination against minority voters, regardless of whether those effects are intentional. The problem that Congress had in mind when it passed the amendments was almost identical to the one posed by the winner-take-all rule. In many jurisdictions candidates are elected to office at large by majority vote. Such systems tend to limit the ability of minority voters to elect candidates to office.
Imagine a city of 1,000 voters, 700 of whom are white and 300 of whom are black, which is governed by a ten-member city council. Each city councilor is elected at large by majority vote of the entire city. If voting is polarized along racial lines, the white voters will be able to choose all ten of the council members and the black voters will be effectively unrepresented. Under the Voting Rights Act, such systems are illegal.