District voting and ‘smaller is better’ logic

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Some readers and online posters have made a case for the ultimate logic of small district voting in the aftermath of the court-forced change in the way Fayette voters choose their representatives to the Fayette County Board of Education.

I suspect those who support the change tend to support the NAACP’s lawsuit contention that a black minority has been denied the right to choose their own representative to the board because Fayette’s at-large voting for all five districts dilutes their voting power.

That’s a separate issue, so first let’s take the district arguments on their merits.

Several cited the election of U.S. senators in their arguments. “If district voting is taken to its logical conclusion, then all U.S. senators should be voted on by all the people in all the states. Therefore, your argument for countywide at-large voting in Fayette is logically flawed, since voters in smaller districts are better represented by those elected officials they know,” these debaters contended.

That argument fails when you examine historical precedents and take it to the logical opposite end of the spectrum.

The United States exists within a constitutional framework, and that framework has from its beginning recognized large voting districts. U.S. Senators have from the beginning of the republic been limited to specific voting districts called “states.” Only voters within that specific district have been allowed to vote for the two senators assigned to each state. (That’s just within the past century; previously, state legislators chose the senators.)

Constitutionally, states are the largest voting districts, from president on down. So, constitutionally, there’s nothing logically wrong with large voting districts, whatever you think of Harry Reid or Rand Paul.

In our federal system, states are given the power to subdivide into as many or as few voting boundaries as they choose for local governance. For example, Delaware has only three counties, while Texas has 254 (Georgia is second most at 159. Louisiana and Alaska call their political subdivisions parishes and boroughs, respectively, but it’s the same thought.)

While counties generally are creations of each state’s constitution, cities usually are creations of each state’s legislature. Within those political subdivisions are smaller voting districts.

The smaller district proponents have a point that smaller is better when it comes to democratic representation, but they fail to ask the right question: What is the ideal size for a voting district? One with 110,000 residents (Fayette County), one with about 21,000 residents (as drawn by the NAACP and soon to be blessed by the federal judge), one with 10,000, one with 5,000, one subdivision, one street, one side of one street, one house, one bedroom … Well, you get my drift.

If smaller is better, then why stop arbitrarily at five districts for the school board? Why not have 10 districts, 20, 50 or 100?

The logic breaks down the smaller you go. It truly is a compromise political decision as to how much smaller is best politically and practically. I contend that decision should be left to the voters themselves, and should not be imposed arbitrarily from outside the political process.

Fayette voters more than four decades ago went to the polls and said that every voter in the county should have a vote on the five members of the school board. At that time minority residents comprised fewer than 5 percent of the total county population. So nothing got taken away from or denied to minority voters at that time. Only Democrats held elective office in Fayette in those days.

What’s interesting is that the U.S. Supreme Court has strongly signaled that the part of the Voting Rights Act under which the NAACP sued and forced the Fayette Board of Education to surrender in a 3-to-2 vote is looked upon as constitutionally suspect. Cases are wending their way to the Supremes on these questions.

If and when (and I suspect it’s more “when” than “if”) the Supremes void the racial gerrymandering part of the act, the General Assembly would then be free to restore that which has been taken away from all of us, minority and majority.

Correction: I erroneously wrote last week that the vote to settle the lawsuit was unanimous. The vote was not unanimous. Former Chairman and Post 4 member Bob Todd and Post 3 member Marion Key voted against the district voting settlement. New Chairman Leonard Presberg, Post 1 member Janet Smola and Post 2 member Terri Smith voted to approve the settlement.

[Cal Beverly is editor and publisher of The Citizen.]