In our theory of change, we believe that, in order to achieve racial equity in our representative democracy, communities of color must have the organizational capacity to achieve high levels of civic engagement AND they must lead efforts to transform our electoral systems.
Why Electoral Systems?
Electoral systems have a tremendous impact on how voters’ preferences are translated into the ways communities are politically represented. Based on British colonial history, the most common types of election for legislative bodies in the United States are plurality, winner-take-all (aka “first past the post”) elections with either single-member districts or at-large by numbered position. For communities of color, however, electoral systems have presented significant barriers to political empowerment. Either through the process of redistricting, whereby people of color are often strategically “packed” into few or “cracked” into several single-member districts, or the perpetuation of at-large elections by numbered positions when polarized voting patterns persist, the ability of communities of color to elect candidates of their choice is often thwarted.
While legal protections under the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) are still available, leveraging VRA claims is costly, limited in scope, and have been severely undermined. Under Section 2, the practice of drawing maps that unfairly dilute the voting strength of protected classes is illegal. However, lawsuits under this provision are only pursued those with significant resources, take years to complete, and rely on segregation for typical remedies. Further, Section 5, which required jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination to get pre-clearance for elections changes from the US Department of Justice, was gutted by the 2013 SCOTUS decision, Shelby County v. Holder, making VRA remedies even more out of reach.
Without voting rights protections, the process of changing electoral systems, even at the local level, is extremely difficult. In “home rule” jurisdictions, advocates need to engage impacted communities, build relations with election administrators, gather a large number of valid signatures and run a successful ballot measure campaign. If successful, these advocates would need to educate voters about using the new system, and encourage new people to run.
Advance State Voting Rights Protections
With both California and Washington passing landmark voting rights legislation, advocates have a framework for providing stronger protections than Section 2 of the federal VRA. MED will connect with state and local organizations promoting civic engagement in communities of color and determine the need for and structure of state-level voting rights protections. If relevant, MED will work with these communities to foster coalitions, provide trainings, and resource efforts to advance these protections.
Build Capacity Through Census & Redistricting
The upcoming decennial Census presents a major challenge to equitable representation for communities of color and low-income communities. In response, the philanthropic sector and state/local government are stepping up their efforts support a complete count. MED will partner with base building groups to channel this one-time infusion of resources to build long term organizing capacity in places where changes to representation are potential. This includes building relational organizing tools to track census engagement, conducting GIS research to identify geographies that may be subject to protections under the federal Voting Rights Act, and educating stakeholders about the upcoming redistricting process and electoral systems reform.
Support Local and Statewide Electoral Reforms
Efforts to reform electoral systems at the state level benefit tremendously from adoption of similar changes in large counties and municipalities. More Equitable Democracy will provide technical assistance to grassroots activists that includes strategic planning, meeting facilitation, coalition development, fundraising, and training. This assistance will lead to stronger coalitions centered on racial equity and help attract broad-based support across communities to advance bold solutions to our broken system, particularly ranked choice voting and proportional representation.