Scoppe: How the sensible center can save itself

Associate EditorFebruary 11, 2014 

— AN INCREASINGLY vocal subset of voters who consider compromise — the essential ingredient to any enterprise involving human beings — a capital offense. A Legislature that fiddles at nullification and nonsensical gun laws while South Carolina is burned by a dysfunctional government overseen by elected officials determined to preserve their corruption-enabling ethics law. 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.

All are byproducts of a world where paranoia has been transformed from a mental illness into a political choice, fed by an angry echo-chamber society in which extremists, armed with the Internet and cable news, easily find like-minded extremists, isolate themselves from those who disagree and convince themselves that they are the majority.

But long before we had the Internet or cable news, our politicians already had begun transforming us from a people to an ever-expanding number of peoples, and the more they did this, the more we demanded that they act as representatives of their respective peoples, rather than representatives of we, the people.

This process began with the passage of the 1964 Voting Rights Act, which requires states to draw election districts where black voters have an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice, rather than having their votes always drowned out by the white voters who were either naturally or artificially drawn into the majority.

Unfortunately, rather than helping us move beyond race, these race-based districts taught us to believe that black people must be represented by black officials and white people by white officials. That taught those elected officials to concern themselves only with those of their own race.

The Reagan Administration’s Justice Department put this policy on steroids, pushing Southern states to maximize the number of black-majority districts, which simultaneously creates lily-white districts that, at least in the South, reliably elect Republicans. And politicians became quite adept at this, essentially selecting their constituents instead of letting their constituents select them.

As electoral districts became more reliably Republican and reliably Democratic, our elections increasingly have been decided in the primaries. So we get increasingly left-wing black Democrats and increasingly right-wing white Republicans, who know they have to satisfy the most radical voters, who demand ideological purity above pragmatism.

The sensible center shows no inclination of forcing change — by either formally or informally creating a centrist, third party — and there’s no turning back the blogosphere or twitterverse or the 24/7 news stations that punish rational thought. But if there is one thing that can stimulate action in politics, it’s politicians’ self-interest. And this could be a crucial moment to take advantage of that.

Imagine if we could reduce the self-selecting power of incumbency, pull our government back to the political center and reduce the role of racial politics in our elections, by turning the process around and letting voters draw the districts themselves.

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.

The resulting uncertainty could push politicians back to the sensible political center. That’s what happened when the Illinois legislature used a cumulative system from 1870 until 1980. Chicago voters elected a handful of moderate Republicans. Voters in Republican areas elected some moderate Democrats. Independent thinkers in both parties flourished.

More than 50 local governments from North Carolina to Texas have settled voting-rights cases with cumulative-voting systems. South Carolina even used one after the Civil War.

It sounds radical, but, really, is it any more radical than letting our legislators pick their constituents?

Incumbents have not been willing to consider this option for the same reason they haven’t been willing to fix a broken county election system: Nobody wants to mess with the system that got them elected and continues to get them reelected. The only way they’re likely to be interested in change is if they feel threatened by the current system.

And here’s where the opportunity comes in: An increasing number of Republicans are beginning to feel threatened, as tea-party radicals use this system to “primary” anyone who doesn’t agree with them 100 percent of the time.

Of course, there’s a thin line here: We have to have legislators who feel threatened enough by the current system to be willing to change it, and they have to change it before there are no longer enough of them to do so. I don’t think we’ve passed that tipping point in South Carolina, but we likely will soon.

So before we get much farther into a new legislative session, and a new election year, those rational legislators in both parties ought to consider the fact that this could be their last and best hope of returning power to the sensible center.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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