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Effects of multimember districts on black representation in state legislatures


We look at the most general feature of multimember districts (MMDs) as compared to single-member districting (SMD) plans: the higher likelihood of submergence of minority voting strength. We focus on data on black legislative representation between 1977 and 1982 in the 11 states with more than 15% black populations, and compare states which use MMDs with those that use SMDs. We also examine changes in black representation in states which shifted from MMDs to SMDs. In addition, for MMD state legislative elections in eight North Carolina counties between 1978 and 1982, we examine in detail the nature of minority submergence including the lack of geographic representativity of the persons elected from MMDs. The counties we examine contain four of North Carolina’s largest cities and a substantial portion of North Carolina’s black population. Unlike almost all of the previously published literature on racial representation in MMDs, our study deals with state legislative races and not local elections.

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  1. Election rules which U.S. courts have held to be especially pernicious to minority success include staggered terms, anti-single-shot provisions such as numbered places, and a majority vote requirement (see e.g.,Zimmer v. McKeithen 485 E 2d 1297 (5th Cir. 1973)). A majority vote requirement is present in North Carolina legislative primaries.

  2. See, e.g.,White v.Regester 412 U.S. 755 (1973).

  3. See, e.g.,McMillan v.Escambia County of Florida, 638 E 2d 1239 (1981).

  4. Bernard Grofman, Michael Migalski, and Nicholas Noviello. “The Totality of Circumstances Test in the 1982 Amendments to the Voting Rights Act: A Social Science Perspective.”Law and Policy, vol. 7, no. 2 (April 1985), 199–223. Also see Bernard Grofman, “Criteria for Districting: A Social Science Perspective,”UCLA Law Review vol. 33 (October 1985), 77–184.

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  5. Barbara L. Berry and Thomas R. Dye. “The Discriminatory Effects of At-Large Elections,”Florida State University Law Review, vol. 7 (1979), 85–122.

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  6. Richard Niemi, Jeffrey S. Hill and Bernard Grofman. “The Impact of Multimember District Elections on Party Representation in State Legislatures.”Legislative Studies Quarterly vol. 10, no. 4 (November 1985), 441–55 (1986, forthcoming), Table 1.

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  7. Berry and Dye, pp. 86–87.

  8. Niemi, Hill, and Grofman, Table 2.

  9. Gingles v.Edmisten (D.C. North Carolina, 1984). This case has been heard by the U.S. Supreme Court,Sub Nom Thornburg v.Gingles (November 1985). The decision is expected in spring 1986.

  10. R. Engstrom and M. McDonald. “Effects of At-Large vs. District Elections on Racial Representation in U.S. Municipalities,” in B. Grofman and A. Lijphart (Eds.),Electoral Laws and Their Political Consequences. New York: Agathon Press, 1986 (forthcoming).

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  11. For a partial review, see Bernard Grofman, “Ward vs. At-Large Elections, Part II: A Review of Recent Studies” (unpub. manuscript, 1981). State studies include Debra J. Collins, “Florida Changes Districts for the First Time,”National Civic Review, vol. 72 (May 1983): 270–72; and Malcolm E. Jewell, “The Consequences of Legislative Districting in Four Southern States.” Paper read at Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics, Charleston, 1980.

  12. Niemi, Hill, and Grofman.

  13. Niemi, Hill, and Grofman.

  14. The failure of minorities to gain office at any given level makes less likely minority success at other levels of government as well, since minorities are then denied the experience in office which facilitates successful campaigns for other office and which experience can be shared with other minority candidates. Minority submergence in MMDs can operate in both primaries and general elections. Especially when minority candidates are so unlikely of success that there are few, if any, minority candidates in any given contest, additional probable consequences of minority submergence are reduced turnout and reduced interest in politics among voters in the minority. See Douglas St. Angelo and Paul Puryear. “Fear, Apathy, and Other Dimensions of Black Voting,” in M.B. Preston, L.J. Henderson, Jr., and P. Puryear (Eds.).The New Black Politics. New York: Longmans, 1982.

  15. Malcolm E. Jewell, “The Consequences of Single- and Multi-Member Districting,” in B. Grofman, A. Lijphart, R. McKay, and H. Scarrow (Eds.),Representation and Redistricting Issues. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1982, 129–135.

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  16. In North Carolina, as noted above, use of MMDs was largely ended in 1982 in those portions of the state covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act because of Justice Department reluctance to grant preclearance if MMDs were continued in use. Thus, we treated North Carolina as “yes” and “no” in Table 1 for 1983.

  17. Collins, p. 271.

  18. See note 4 above and Theodore Arrington, “Affidavit.” Prepared testimony inPugh v.Hunt (D.C. North Carolina, 1983).

  19. Grofman, Bernard. “Effects of Multimember State House and State Senate Districts in Eight North Carolina Counties, 1978–1982.” Plaintiffs Exhibits 13-18 plus appendices. Prepared testimony inGingles v.Edmisten (D.C. North Carolina. 1983); and Bernard Grofman and Nicholas Noviello. “An Outline for Racial Bloc Voting Analysis.” Plantiffs Exhibit. Prepared testimony inGingles v.Edmislen (D.C. North Carolina, 1983).

  20. Bernard Grofman, “Maps.” Plantiffs exhibits 2-4, prepared testimony inGingles v.Edmisten (D.C. North Carolina, 1983).

  21. Another general problem with MMDs, exacerbated by geographic unrepresentativeness of MMD representatives, is that the tie between a representative and his/her constituency is weakened when a voter does not have a single representative to regard as “his own” (see Jewell, 1982, for support of this argument based on surveys of state legislators). Luebke (1979) and Davidson (1972) have suggested that black candidates in MMDs may be inhibited from fully representing the black community because of fear of offending white voters and campaign contributors. See Luebke, Paul. “Social and Political Bases of a Black Candidate’s Coalition: Race, Class and Ideology in the 1976 North Carolina Primary Election,”Politics and Society, vol. 9 (Fall 1979), 239-261, and Davidson, Chandler.Bi-Racial Politics. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972. Additional potential problems with use of MMDs are discussed in Jewell (1982) and Bernard Grofman, “Alternatives to Single-Member Plurality Elections,” in B. Grofman, A. Lijphart, R. McKay, and H. Scarrow (Eds.),Representation and Redistricting Issues. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1982b. Representatives from legislative MMDs are also likely to act as a bloc (see e.g., testimony of Professor John Sanders inGingles v.Edmislen). Often chosen largely by the same subset of voters, predominantly or exclusively of the same party, the of interests among the group of representatives elected from an MMD can be expected to be greater than that which would have arisen had representatives been chosen from distinct districts. Thus, the set of representatives elected from a given MMD might not fully mirror the views of all the citizens in the district. In particular, representatives elected from MMDs may be unresponsive to the minority groups in the district whose candidate(s) have been defeated. This problem is exacerbated if MMD representatives are geographically unrepresentative.

  22. Arrington, 1983.

  23. James Bryce.The American Commonwealth. London: 1889.

  24. Alan Rosenthal.Legislative Life: People, Process and Performance in the Slates (New York: Harper and Row, 1981), p. 16. A problem with multimember districts not directly related to any of the above issues, one which to our knowledge has never previously been raised, is that multimember districts without a numbered-place system fail to satisfy a criterion which social choice theorists call “consistency.” H. Peyton Young, “An Axiomatization of the Borda Rule,”Journal of Economic Theory, vol. 9 (1974), 43-52. A voting method is said to be “consistent” if, when you divide the constituency into two parts, and if a candidate wins in each part, then s/he also wins overall. It might appear that the consistency criterion is trivial and thatany election method would satisfy it. This is erroneous. Consider the example below of four candidates running for three seats in a multimember district: dates running for three seats in a multimember district: Votes in Precinct 1 40 30 20 10 Votes in Precinct 2 10 30 20 40 In Precinct 1 (C1 C2, C3) will be chosen; in Precinct 2 (C2, C3 C4) will be chosen; yet the overall winners are (C1, C3, C4). Even though C3 won in each precinct (coming in 3rd), C, loses overall. Plurality elections in single-member districts do satisfy the consistency criterion.

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Grofman, B., Migalski, M. & Noviello, N. Effects of multimember districts on black representation in state legislatures. Rev Black Polit Econ 14, 65–78 (1986).

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  • Black Population
  • Racial Representation
  • District Election
  • Black Candidate
  • Black Voter