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Black candidate for Euclid school board to test new voting system

Patrick O'Donnell // Published August 21, 2009 in Cleveland Plain Dealer
Euclid- The court-imposed voting system aimed at putting minorities on the Euclid school board will be put to the test right out of the gate.

One black candidate is challenging the three white incumbents for one of the three board seats being contested this November. Evette Moton, parent of a recent Euclid High School graduate and of a current student, was the only challenger to file by Thursday's deadline to be on the ballot.

It will be the first election in Euclid - and the only one in Ohio - using "limited voting" in which voters can cast ballots for fewer candidates than seats that are up for grabs.

As ordered by U.S. District Judge Kate O'Malley, each voter can vote for just one candidate even though four will be on the ballot competing for three seats.

That kind of voting plan is one of several alternative voting methods used in recent years to break up voting blocs and allow minorities - both racial and political - seats on governing boards.

"It might take a couple of elections for people to catch on with how to handle it," said former John Carroll University professor Kathleen Barber, author of a book on different voting methods. "But I think that it will open up the door for minorities to be elected."

The school board was the second target of legal action by the U.S. Justice Department for never having had a minority elected to posts even though the city is between 30 and 40 percent black.

The city lost a court challenge over its City Council elections and created new wards, including some with black majorities, that Justice Department lawyers said would allow a black candidate to break into the all-white City Council.

The city's first black council member, Kandace Jones, was elected last spring.

The Justice Department then sued the school district last year because the school board did not have black members. The only black school board member had been appointed in 1998 but lost his first election shortly after.

Moton, an 11-year resident of Euclid, said she had planned to run for the board even before O'Malley's ruling in June.

Moton said she wants to avoid making race an issue in the election because the city has enough tension, but she believes a key in November will be the turnout of black voters.

"That's going to be part of my mantra," she said. "If you want to make a change, at least vote."

Alternative voting plans, experts say, have succeeded in the past in breaking up long-established blocs and holds by one party or racial group on power. A more common form than "limited voting" is "cumulative voting," in which voters have a certain number of votes to cast and can spread them among several candidates or put them all behind a single candidate.

The Cuyahoga County Board of Elections told O'Malley before her ruling that cumulative voting would require large changes in vote-counting methods.

"Limited voting" is used in only four states, according to FairVote, a nonprofit voting group.

In Philadelphia, voters can select five candidates when seven at-large council members are to be chosen.

Limited voting was not always allowed by the courts. In 1884, Springfield, Ohio, tried to use it in electing its police commission. The Ohio Supreme Court blocked that plan, saying the state constitution allows residents a vote for every seat up for election, but subsequent rulings said cities are able to determine their own voting methods.

Both Moton and incumbent school board member Smith said the change has already altered the way voters think about the election. As they gathered signatures to be on the ballot, residents told them that they now have to research the candidate they most want.

"Now people have to make a choice," Moton said. "People have to look at what we stand for."