Cumulative Voting – Amarillo

Date: 26 Nov 2008 | posted in: governance | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

In Amarillo, Texas, which is is 16 percent Latino and 6 percent black, a minority had not been elected to the school board since the 1970s.

In 1998, several concerned Black and Latino citizens, together with the Amarillo chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (and later the local NAACP), sued the school board under the Voting Rights Act. They alleged that Amarillo’s current system of school board elections unfairly diluted the minority vote and denied Blacks and Latinos adequate representation.

At the time, Amarillo had an at-large, numbered-place system for electing members to the school board. “At large” means that a pool of candidates from the entire city would run for a designated number of seats (as opposed to a system where candidates run within districts). “Numbered place” means that each candidate had to declare which of the designated seats he was running for, and run only for that seat, against others who had elected to run for that seat as well.

The at-large, numbered-place system was particularly problematic for minority candidates in a city where the school board vote tended split along racial lines (Eighty percent of white Anglos, on average, would support white candidates). Even if the vast majority of minority voters supported a minority candidate, their votes would be overridden by the majority in each of the school board races.

Theconcerned citizen and organizational plaintiffs asked MALDEF (the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund), a public-interest law firm, to litigate the case. MALDEF at first proposed replacing Amarillo’s at-large system with a single-member district system, drawing the districts so that some had a majority of minority constituents.

For decades, creating single-member districts was a common legal remedy to empower minority communities. But in recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has outlawed some explicit”racial gerrymanders.” In Amarillo, the parties arrived at a settlement before the case was decided. The settlement established a system of cumulative voting for Amarillo school board elections.

InAmarillo’s cumulative voting system, each voter has the same number of votes as there are seats. The elections are still at large, but the voter has the right to cast as many of her ballots for each candidate as she wishes to. For instance, if there are four seats, a voter may cast all four of her votes for a single candidate, split her vote among two or three contenders, or cast a single vote for each of four different candidates.

Cumulative voting differs from proportional representation, where there are multiple seats but each voter can cast only one vote, and the seats are filled in proportion to the number of votes received by each candidate. Cumulative voting also differs from instant runoff voting, where voters can rank candidates in order of preference.

Oneadvantage of cumulative voting over other systems is that it is able to measure strong, as opposed to weaker, preferences for a candidate by allowing voters to cohere their votes (give all votes to a single candidate), or spread them among several.

On May 6, 2000 an African American, James Allen, and a Latina, Rita Sandoval, were elected to the Amarillo school board under the new cumulative voting system.

Many of their supporters voted for them more than once. For instance, in the largely African American neighborhood of North Heights, 321 ballots were cast, and Allen ended up with 744 votes.

However, a close study of the election results reveals that these two candidates would have won even if voters had cast their ballots under the old system, according to Les Hoyt of the Amarillo Independent School District.

NinaPerales, MALDEF’s chief attorney for the case does not doubt this. She believes that the lawsuit and surrounding publicity sensitized the public to the issue of minority representation and made them more likely to vote for minority candidates. Another contributing factor was that the local newspaper and a local PAC, Business Involved in Our Schools (BIOS), unexpectedly endorsed both candidates. Thus, a better test of cumulative voting will occur in the next election.

OnMay 4, 2002, cumulative voting was used for the second time to elect the school board in the Amarillo Independent School District, the largest jurisdiction in the nation to use cumulative voting with a total population of 160,995. Five candidates sought three seats, with two white incumbents, one particularly strong white challenger and one Latina candidate. The winners were one of the white incumbents, one white challenger and Latina candidate Janie Rivas. The school board now has four white representatives, two Latino representatives and one black representative – all elected either in the first cumulative voting election for four seats in May 2000 or the second cumulative voting election for three seats in May 2002. Under the old winner-take-all, at-large electoral rules, no non-white candidate had been elected for nearly two decades even though more than 40 percent of the student-age population and more than 20 percent of the voting-age popuation in Amarillo is non-white.

Cumulativevoting is most popular in Texas, with 50 jurisdictions, mainly school districts, using the system. (This may be because Texas has a law allowing school boards to switch to cumulative voting without requiring specific legislation to do so.) For the moment, Amarillo is the largest jurisdiction in the country to use it. Illinois used cumulative voting within three-seat districts to elect their State House of Representatives for about 110 years.