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"Cumulative Voting as an Alternative to Districting: An Exit Survey in 16 Texas Communities"

September/October 1995 issue of Poverty & Race

by Robert Brischetto

When the Supreme Court last June 29 declared a black-majority congressional district in Georgia illegally drawn to segregate voters on the basis of race, three decades of progress under the Voting Rights Act seemed to begin unraveling. In Miller v. Johnson, the high court ruled that drawing electoral district lines chiefly on the basis of race can be presumed unconstitutional, absent some compelling state interest.

The decision was presaged two years earlier in Shaw v. Reno, when the court called into question a "bizarre shaped" North Carolina congressional district and warned that "racial classifications with respect to voting carry particular dangers. Racial gerrymandering, even for remedial purposes, may balkanize us into competing racial factions; it threatens to carry us further from the goal of a political system in which race no longer matters..."

For voting rights advocates, Shaw and Miller were bitter pills to take. For decades, they had been drawing districts chiefly on the basis of race in order to level the playing field and allow minorities an opportunity to elect candidates of their own choice. Indeed, the creation of majority-minority districts largely explains why 40 African Americans and 17 Latinos sit in the House of Representatives today. As many as a dozen of those seats may be invalidated by future federal rulings forcing the states to redraw their congressional maps with less attention to race.

In the wake of these Supreme Court decisions, voting rights advocates are seeking solutions that would provide better representation for minorities without resorting to racial gerrymandering. Some have turned to voting systems that approximate proportional representation in multi-seat elections: cumulative voting, limited voting and preference voting. Representative Cynthia McKinney, the Georgia Congresswoman who stands to lose her district because of the Court's June ruling, has proposed a change to the 1967 law requiring single-member districts for congressional elections. The proposed amendments would allow states to adopt alternative methods of voting within multi-member districts that would be fair for minorities and other voting groups. Such alternatives were offered earlier by University of Pennsylvania law professor Lani Guinier. In 1993, Guinier's nomination to become Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights was withdrawn by President Clinton, in part because of her "radical" ideas promoting voting schemes that would achieve proportional representation. After Shaw and Miller, the ideas of the "quota queen"-as she was labeled by conservative Senators-are looking more constitutional.

The search for alternatives to districting has engendered a long-overdue national debate on more basic questions about how well our democracy works and how we choose our elected officials. The United States is one of only a few modern democracies that have not adopted some form of proportional representation. As Birmingham civil rights attorney Edward Still puts it: "Surely, any majoritarian system that can leave 49% of the people ... with nothing to show for having gone to the polls except a patriotic feeling is not the answer."

The Cumulative Voting Alternative

Cumulative voting is one of several modified at-large systems that might be used to approximate proportionate re
presentation in a multi-member elective body. Each voter is allowed as many votes as seats to be filled in a given election. In that way, it is the same as simple at-large systems. However, under cumulative voting, a voter may distribute votes among candidates in any combination, even giving all votes to one candidate.

This system is not new to the American political scene. From 1870 to 1980, Illinois elected members of their General Assembly by cumulative voting. Each legislative district had three representatives, and a voter could cast one vote for each of three candidates, one and one-half votes for each of the two candidates or three votes for one candidate. Cumulative voting has also been used for decades to elect members of many corporate boards of directors. And during the past decade, some three dozen local jurisdictions, in Illinois, New Mexico, South Dakota and Alabama, have adopted cumulative voting as a remedy for minority vote dilution. A federal judge last year was the first to order cumulative voting as a remedy in a case against Worcester County, MD.

Cumulative Voting in Texas

Since 1991, at least two dozen small cities and school districts in the Texas Panhandle and the Permian Basin have settled Voting Rights Act lawsuits via cumulative voting, most of them brought on behalf of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). On May 6, 1995, 26 small cities and school districts in Texas held elections under cumulative voting, most for the first time, all in response to litigation, providing a rare opportunity to test the effectiveness of that system. In 16 of these jurisdictions, minority candidates were competing against Anglos; in ten jurisdictions, minority candidates did not file.

Fifteen of the 16 jurisdictions studied had Latino candidates on the ballot. The Hispanic Research Center at the University of Texas at San Antonio conducted exit polling in these cities and school districts. Bilingual teams of pollsters went to these jurisdictions with bilingual questionnaires to gather data from 3,615 voters on how they cast their ballots, how well they understood the new system of voting and how they evaluated it. The Atlanta Independent School District (ISD), located in East Texas, about 25 miles from Texarkana, held the only election in which a black candidate was running under cumulative voting. The Atlanta survey of 569 voters, a cooperative effort by experts for the plaintiffs and defendants, was conducted by the political science department at Texarkana College.

This study, supported in part by the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, analyzed the exit polls of these 4,184 voters in the 16 jurisdictions in which minorities ran for office under cumulative voting on May 6. The study addressed several questions:

1. Was voting racially polarized? Were there clear differences between minority and Anglo voters in their preferred candidates? Did minority voters vote as a bloc?

2. Did cumulative voting work to elect minority-preferred candidates? If not, why not?

3. Did voters understand cumulative voting?

4. Did voters accept cumulative voting?

Racially Polarized Voting

Knowing whether voters polarize along racial lines is pivotal in voting rights cases, since in the absence of polarization there can be no claim of minority vote dilution.

In the Atlanta ISD, white and black voters could not have been much more polarized in their choices of candidates. Veloria Nanze, the black candidate, came in last among white voters, but fast among African American voters. Fewer than 3% of white voters cast even one of their four votes for Nanze; 94% of all votes cast by blacks went to Nanze.

The same general pattern of polarization between Anglos and Latinos was found in the jurisdictions with Latino candidates, but it was less severe. While Latino candidates were the top choices of Latino voters, they ranked last or next to last among Anglo voters.

The Threshold of Exclusion

In the worst case scenario of totally polarized voting, one can predict the outcome for a racial or ethnic group under cumulative voting by simply calculating the "threshold of exclusion": the proportion of votes that any group of voters must exceed in order to elect a candidate of its choice, regardless of how the rest of the voters cast their ballots. It is calculated as one divided by one more than the number of seats to be filled.

With four seats up in the 1995 Atlanta ISD school board election, the thresbold of exclusion was 1/(4+1), or 20%. That meant that, even if Veloria Nanze did not get a single white vote, she could win as long as black voters comprised at least one more than 20% of the total voters and concentrated their votes on her.

Blacks in Atlanta comprised 21% of the voting age population in 1990 and 31% of the voters in 1995, which means that voter turnout among blacks in this election apparently was much higher than among whites. In next year's election, when three seats are open on the school board, the threshold of exclusion will be 25%, and it is likely that blacks will elect another representative.

The Results Under Cumulative Voting

In the case of the Atlanta ISD, cumulative voting worked as it should have for black voters seeking to elect one candidate. The African American community not only elected their candidate with almost no white support, but they voted together, placing almost all their votes on Nanze, who came in a close second among five candidates in a race that elected the top four choices.

In the 15 contests involving Latino candidates, on first glance the results seem mixed: eight wins and seven losses. A closer examination of the contests involving Latinos reveals that cumulative voting worked almost precisely as expected in polarized communities. In each of the seven jurisdictions where Latino candidates lost, there were not enough Latino voters to rise above the threshold of exclusion. For example, in the Denver City school district, Latinos were 36% of the total population but only 15% of the registered voters and 4% of voters in the May 6 election. Since two seats were up in that election, the threshold of exclusion was set at 33%, not low enough for Latino voters to elect their preferred candidate.

In hindsight, all seven losses could have been avoided by lowering the threshold of exclusion, raising the level of minority participation in the election, or both. The thresholds could have reduced by agreement between the parties designing the cumulative voting system, realizing that the more seats up in an election, the lower the threshold.

The Key Role of Community Organizing

Raising the level of voter participation through voter registration and education, minority candidate recruitment and get-out-the-vote efforts is a key winning strategy under the cumulative voting system. In Atlanta, blacks launched door-to-door voter education and get-out-the-vote drives in black neighborhoods. In the city of Morton, the Morton ISD, Roscoe, the Rotan ISD and the city of Rotan, where as many as five jurisdictions had Latino winners, the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project provided training on voter mobilization under cumulative voting. In Yorktown, where Concerned Citizens for Voting had begun mobilizing under their first cumulative voting election in 1992, a Latino was running as an incumbent.

In stark contrast, where Latino candidates lost, minority voter participation was low. The average turnout rate among Latinos registered to vote in the seven jurisdictions where Latino candidates lost was one-half the turnout rate for non-Latino voters.

Finally, for a group or party to win under cumulative voting in a highly polarized political contest, they must vote together as a group. This may require planning to limit the number of minority candidates so as not to split their strength as a bloc. Placing all one's votes on a single candidate, or "plumping" (as the practice is termed among political scientists), may enable minority voters to concentrate the strength of their group's vote and improve their chances of electing at least one candidate of their choice. African American voters in Atlanta planned their effort very carefully by agreeing to field only one candidate and by conducting doorto-door voter education drives in the black community and get-out-the-vote drives in the early voting period and on election day. The poll found that 90% of blacks in Atlanta ISD "plumped" their votes for Veloria Nanze.

Is Cumulative Voting Understood and Accepted?

Ten of the 16 jurisdictions were holding elections under cumulative voting for the first time, five for only the second time. Beyond the success of minority candidates, we wanted to know how voters responded to the cumulative voting system. Did they understand the new voting system? How do both minority and Anglo voters perceive cumulative voting?

Since all 16 jurisdictions polled had been sued for minority vote dilution, it is likely that Anglo voters harbored much resentment at being forced to adopt a settlement over which they had no control. Yet our exit polls found greater understanding and acceptance of cumulative voting than might be expected. More than nine in ten voters of each ethnic group knew they could concentrate all of their votes on a single candidate. Asked to compare cumulative voting with prior election systems, more said that cumulative voting was easier than said it was more difficult.

There were large ethnic differences in evaluations of cumulative voting with regard to difficulty. More than twice as many minority as Anglo voters felt cumulative voting was easier compared to other elections in which they had voted; fewer than two in ten Anglos found this election system more difficult than their previous voting methods.

Contrary to our expectations, cumulative voting was not rejected by the majority of Anglo voters. We found slightly more agreement than disagreement among Anglos with the statement: "The voting system used today gives everyone a fair chance to elect officials of their choice." Almost nine in ten blacks and eight in ten Latinos agreed that it was a fair system. However, there were a substantial number of Anglos -24% -who strongly disagreed with that statement.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Our study shows that cumulative voting in Texas results in more diverse city councils and school boards. In a racially polarized context-as was found in all the cities and school districts studied-the traditional winner-take-all elections effectively precluded minority groups from electing candidates of their choice. In those cases where cumulative voting did not result in minority victories, it was not because the method did not work, but rather because it was not applied correctly. The results of the May 6 local elections provide some lessons to those considering its adoption:

* Before fashioning an alternative to districting, such as cumulative voting, one must calculate the relative size of the eligible minority voting electorate. This proportion determines what "threshold of exclusion" is needed. For Latino communities, voting age population figures generally will not be an accurate measure of the size of the potential Latino vote; a better indicator is the count of Spanish surnames on the list of registered voters for the jurisdiction.

*After determining the effective size of the minority voting block, the number of seats to be filled in any one election is crucial to determining a minority group's ability to elect its preferred candidate(s). If seats are too widely dispersed over several elections, the chance that a minority group can elect a candidate of its choice will be diminished.

* If the size of the minority voting group is large enough to elect more than one representative, decisions must be made concerning the number of minority candidates to be fielded in a given election. Control of the candidacies is more crucial in cumulative voting than in other modified at-large systems, such as limited voting and preference voting, because intraminority competition can result in minority losses.

* Clearly, cumulative voting is not a minority set-aside program. For minority voters to elect candidates of their choice requires educating minority voters about how to allocate their multiple votes in a manner that will not disperse their voting strength. If local mobilization is not sufficient to get out the minority vote in excess of the calculated threshold of exclusion, the minority candidate is not likely to win.

* All of the jurisdictions that have adopted cumulative voting in Texas are small. The Atlanta ISD was the only jurisdiction with more than 2,000 voters. A modified at-large election system was viewed by election administrators as more desirable than carving their small communities into even smaller single-member districts. But from this limited field experiment it is not clear whether single-member districts would work as well or better for minorities in larger communities.

In view of all the local conditions that must be considered when choosing the type of voting system that best fits the needs of a specific minority community, the jury is still out on whether cumulative voting should be preferred over single-member districts to solve the problem of minority vote dilution.

Perhaps the answer is to be found by returning to a different question, the basic philosophical debate over what type of democracy we want in this country. Is it to be a strictly majoritarian rule, or should we recognize the democratic principle that while the majority has a right to make policy decisions, a significant minority also has a right to be effectively represented in any decision-making body? Under cumulative voting, if any group-racial, gender, country club, bubbas, the militia-is sufficiently large to meet the threshold and votes as a bloc, they can elect a candidate of their choice. Maybe that's why the system is so controversial, even among civil rights advocates.
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