Ben Joravsky’s article on the unlikely coalition of plaintiffs challenging Chicago’s aldermanic wards [City Side, May 29] was an illuminating glance into the characters and history of the latest round of the remap fight, but I’m afraid it left the impression that the solution to a voting system that perpetually favors one group over another is to let the disadvantaged group redraw the map to favor themselves. I think the real problem is not that the wrong group gets to draw the map, but that mapmakers have so much influence over the outcome of the election.

The problem is our winner-take-all voting system, and the solution is to use the race-neutral voting system most of the world’s democracies use: proportional representation. Proportional voting systems give each political group an equal opportunity to elect one of their own by giving representation based on the percentage of the vote earned. If a political minority gets 33 percent of the vote, they would get 33 percent of the representation, not zero; a group with 60 percent of the vote gets 60 percent of the representation, not all of it.

Although there are differences among proportional voting systems, they all share two attributes: they use multimember districts instead of single-member districts (that is, more than one person is elected from a district), and political minorities can win some share of the representation.

If we want a race-neutral map, then we’ll need a neutral map, and that is impossible with winner-take-all elections. As long as we cling to the outdated notion that 51 percent of the vote should get 100 percent of the representation from a district, we’re stuck with a process where the drawing of the district boundaries is more important than what happens on election day. As these “gadflies and upstarts” well know, by changing the district lines they can change the outcome.

If, however, a political minority could get a representative elected with only a minority of the vote, then there would be no reward for mapmaking and the entire contentious issue of boundaries would fade. This is the beauty of proportional voting systems–even with a gerrymandered map, political minorities could still get their fair share of representatives elected because they no longer need a majority of votes in any given district. The game switches from fighting over who gets to draw the map to who gets more votes. (This is why gerrymandering isn’t an issue in countries that use proportional voting.)

The $10 million legal fight over Chicago’s ward map won’t be solved by a new map that creates one more black-majority ward. As the article explains, even if an amended map is in place by the 1999 elections, we’ll have to draw an entirely new one in 2001 for the next round of redistricting. This new map will set off the same old legal fights that we’ve been going through for the last seven years. We should avoid this expensive, wasteful struggle by eliminating winner-take-all elections, the real culprit in this case. Voters should choose their aldermen, not the other way around.

Older Reader readers might recall voting in a proportional system–Illinois used cumulative voting to elect her house of representatives from 1870-1980. The old three-member district cumulative voting system worked well for Illinois, electing Chicago Republicans, Du Page Democrats, and independents like Abner Mikva, Harold Washington, and Paul Simon. It’s no coincidence that independents’ clout in Springfield has dried up since we lost cumulative voting in 1980 to a cutback amendment which reduced the size of the house from 177 to the current 118 (see the recent article on the IVI-IPO [November 11, 1997]). The party leaders have grown much more powerful since we started using winner-take-all elections in 1982, which explains the growing sentiment to bring back cumulative voting.

Just a few weeks ago a federal district court judge faced with a similar Voting Rights Act case in Chicago Heights opted for the race-neutral solution of cumulative voting instead of trying to draw a “fair” winner-take-all map for the city council. Chicago ought to take a lesson from Chicago Heights and use cumulative voting to resolve this perpetual mapmaking fight once and for all.

Dan Johnson-Weinberger

W. Webster