By: Leo Jobsis-Rossignol
Since the United States Supreme Court first found multi-member districts to be a method of vote dilution in violation of the Voting Rights Act, they have become a less and less popular way of electing legislators. Today, only ten states allow the use of multi-member districts, and only for state legislature elections. Most frequently, these are restricted to state Houses of Representatives in a bicameral legislature, and even there, relatively few members are elected from them. However, they have not gone out of vogue everywhere, and their presence can have a profound impact.
One place still highly reliant on multi-member district-elected representatives is the U.S. Virgin Islands. Made up of just the tiny islands of St. Thomas, St. John, St. Croix, and surrounding cays, drawing 15 districts for all of the territorial senators sitting in its unicameral legislature would be difficult, and given how freely inhabitants can move from place to place in the small space, likely futile. Instead, the territory has opted for just two districts, St. Thomas-St. John and St. Croix, with an additional at-large senator elected across the islands. Each district elects 7 senators.
There have been complaints about this, from both the federal government and local organizations, claiming that the multi-member district scheme doesn’t serve the needs of the community. Without more individualized representation, who do community members in need go to? In 2019, enough pressure was mounted that an initiative made it on to the ballot, replacing the current scheme with five districts, four of which would have two senators apiece and one of which had only one, as well as providing for the election of six at-large senators. Even though the measure won a majority of votes, it was not put into effect: Virgin Islands ballot initiatives must be approved by a majority of voters in an election in which a majority of registered voters participate. Since turnout was actually under 10%, the law remained unchanged.
But why have this two-district multi-member scheme in the first place? When Governor Paiewonsky was asked about this at a Congressional hearing in 1966, he explained aptly that the two island groups broadly making up the U.S. Virgin Islands—St. Thomas-St. John and St. Croix—had been governed separately under the old colonial administration. Each island also had its own division into country and city districts. As a result, those from the country and those from the city did not trust one another, and those from different islands saw even less in common with one another. When the elected legislature was set up, it was decided that this problem had to be overcome, and so the apportionment and election system focused on unity over other objectives. Having all of an island’s senators elected by the whole of the island, and all citizens vote for an at-large member, framed the legislative function of government as a collaborative one, rather than one subject to disquiet and division.
Due to the Virgin Islands high standards for ballot initiatives, it is likely that the legislature will remain as is for the foreseeable future. Perhaps it will give American voters nationwide a look into an alternative political system, to see what might have been.