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Hispanic Research Center

January/February 1997 issue of Poverty & Race

Hispanic Research Center
Univ. of Texas - San Antonio
San Antonio, TX 78249-0655.
Contact: Robert Brischetto

Since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, the preferred solution to the problem of minority vote dilution has been the drawing of majority-minority single-member districts. Then - in a series of five decisions beginning in 1993 with Shaw v. Reno - the Supreme Court made drawing districts chiefly on the basis of race problematic at best.

But advocates for minority voters may have found a solution to the problem of minority vote dilution that does not rely on how districts are drawn. Cumulative voting (CV) was recommended by Univ. of Pennsylvania law professor Lani Guinier in her recent work, Tyranny of the Majority, and offered as one alternative to districting by Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia [see accompanying article, p. 7] in her bill promoting proportional voting systems now before the Congress. This system has been adopted by at least 50 local jurisdictions in the country, 42 of them in Texas. As a multi-seat election contest, cumulative voting rules allow voters to cast as many votes as there are seats to be filled and to distribute them among the candidates in any manner, even on one candidate.

With support in part from PRRAC, cumulative voting systems in Texas were studied during the May 5, 1995, elections by the Hispanic Research Center at the Univ. of Texas at San Antonio, That day, CV elections were held in 24 Texas cities and school districts. For half of them it was the first time elections had been conducted under cumulative voting rules. Mexican Americans were candidates in 18 of those elections; a black candidate ran in one. The study, using exit polls. examined the extent to which voting patterns were polarized along ethnic lines and the impact the option to cumulate had on the opportunity to elect Latino candidates. It also measured the Latino, black and Anglo voters' understanding and evaluation of the cumulative voting system.

With few exceptions, prior to the 1995 Texas elections at least one minority candidate had been elected in each of the local contests held under CV rules since it was first introduced as a remedy for minority vote dilution in 1987 in Alamogordo. NM. The results of the 1995 Texas elections seemed to present an anomaly. As reported in the Sept/Oct. 1995 issue of Poverty & Race, there were as many wins as there were losses by Mexican American candidates and one tie in the CV elections. The only black candidate won. A look at the 1996 election outcomes under CV reveals the same pattern of results: out of 15 contests, minority candidates won in eight. Were the chances of winning under cumulative voting about 50-50 for minority voters? Why did so many minorities lose?

The 1995 study examined voting patterns and found that voters were polarized along racial/ethnic lines in almost every locale. Minority candidates were the top choice of minority voters in all but two of the 16 jurisdictions and the last or next to last choice among Anglo voters in all but two places. Perhaps the most severe case of racially polarized voting was found in east Texas in the Atlanta Independent School District, where only 3% of all white votes and as many as 93% of all black votes were cast for the African American candidate. However, Veloria Nanze became the first African American elected to the Atlanta ISD school board.

Even under the worst case scenario of totally polarized voting, CV elections provide n opportunity for minorities of a certain size to elect a representative of their choice. Under cumulative voting, the threshold of exconclusion is that proportion of the voters that a group must exceed in order to elect a candidate of its choice, regardless of how the rest of the voters cast their ballots. The formula for the threshold is one divided by one more than the number of positions. Thus, the greater the number of positions available in a single election, the lower the threshold.

Most of the Texas elections under cumulative voting were set up with staggered terms, If there were seven positions on the school board, the typical CV settlement would stagger terms over three elections: 3-2-2. This meant that a minority group that comprised as much as 1/(3+l)or25% of the electorate could elect a candidate of its choice under the most polarized conditions. In each of those jurisdictions where minority candidates lost, the threshold of exclusion was not even approached, either because it was set too high for the available pool of eligible minority voters or because there was low minority voter participation. The lessons to be learned about cumulative voting by advocates for minority representation are clear:
· Polarized voting persists along racial and ethnic lines in Texas communities. But cumulative voting can overcome the discriminatory effects of polarized voting if applied correctly.
· In settling lawsuits with CV remedies, attorneys should examine carefully the pool of available minority voters before structuring staggered terms. The percent Latino of the voting age population in a jurisdiction is not a very good indicator of the proportion of eligible Latino voters. A better indicator would be the percent of registered voters who have Spanish surnames. Then, the number of seats up in any one election should be no fewer than needed for the minority group to meet the threshold of exclusion.
· In as many as four of ten places with CV elections in 1995 and 1996 in Texas, there were no minority candidates running at all. If cumulative voting is to be successful, it requires a full program of locally organized voter mobilization, including candidate recruitment.
· Voter education and get-out-the-vote drives are essential under cumulative voting. The minority group will often have to make decisions about how to allocate their multiple votes in a manner that will not disperse their voting strength too much. And the local mobilization effort must be sufficient to get out the minority vote in excess of the calculated threshold of exclusion.
In short, achieving minority representation under cumulative voting will come only after an intensely local analysis followed by local voter mobilization efforts. Who said democracy was easy?


To obtain a copy of the various articles published on cumulative voting, write the Hispanic Research Center, Div. of Social & Policy Sciences, UTSA, San Antonio, fly 78249-0655.


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