Fair representation voting has been used to elect public officials in the United States since the nineteenth century. Currently, voters use at-large ranked choice voting, cumulative voting, and the single vote or other forms of "limited voting" to elect city councils, school boards, and other local offices in over two hundred United States jurisdictions to achieve proportional representation in their communities.
See below for a brief history of fair representation voting in the United States, the full list of jurisdictions using fair representation voting, including what specific election method they use and when their next election will be. Or jump straight to a state's story of fair representation voting by clicking on any of the states listed in the sidebar.
The city of Cambridge, Massachusetts elects both its city council and school board by at-large ranked choice voting. Cambridge is one of the two-dozen cities that adopted ranked choice voting at-large for city government in the first half of the 20th century and one of two using ranked choice voting in multi-winner elections in 2015.
Use in the United States of the single vote method dates back to the nineteenth century. Single, or limited, voting ensures that each candidate will be elected by a distinct group of voters, meaning more voters overall achieve representation. Since 1871, all counties in Pennsylvania (except some with home rule powers) must use a form of limited voting in which voters have two votes for three seats. Philadelphia has used limited voting since 1951 for its at-large city council seats. Connecticut has required limited voting for all local school board elections since the 1950s; Hartford and other Connecticut cities use it as well. Limited voting is often paired with "limited nominations," meaning a political party can nominate fewer candidates than there are seats to be won. As of May 2015, 164 jurisdictions use limited or single vote methods of election.
Many cities, counties, school boards and other governing bodies have recently extended cumulative voting rights to their voters or limited the number of seats a single group can elect, as a way of resolving illegal vote dilution of their racial minority populations. Fifty-eight jurisdictions nationwide use cumulative voting in local elections. These changes generally happen following a lawsuit (or threat of a lawsuit) brought under the Voting Rights Act; those settlements are regularly upheld by the courts tasked with reviewing them.
Fair representation voting effectively remedies racial minority vote dilution by empowering all groups of voters to achieve actual representation. FairVote produces a booklet for practitioners to describe how fair representation voting can remedy vote dilution claims and under what circumstances they should be used.
Perhaps no state is more closely associated with the Voting Rights Act than Alabama. Alabama's history with the VRA stretches from the historic march from Selma to Montgomery led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the wake of the tragic events of Bloody Sunday, to the Supreme Court case that ended pre-clearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act brought by Shelby County, Alabama. It is therefore fitting that Alabama is also home to a significant amount of voting rights innovation through the use of fair representation voting.
Alabama’s use of fair representation voting systems is a testament to the success of both the Voting Rights Act and the impact that fair representation systems can have on minority and women’s representation. Racial disparities in Alabama’s state and local government served as evidence for the initial enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and since that time the state has been a focal point in voting rights litigation.
Thanks to the efforts of activists like Jerome Gray, fair representation voting systems have been promoting minority representation in Alabama for almost 40 years. Mr. Gray has been a tireless promoter of fair representation systems as remedies for Voting Rights Act claims, and his personal experiences as an Alabama resident have often added to his activism. In 1982, Mr. Gray’s home county of Conecuh adopted a limited voting system as part of a settlement with the Department of Justice, becoming the first Alabama county to adopt a fair voting system. As a result, black representation on the county committee increased from 10 percent to over 40 percent.
Since then, more than 30 jurisdictions in Alabama have adopted limited and cumulative voting systems, and there has been marked improvement in representation of women as well as minorities. The number of women elected to local office in these jurisdictions nearly doubled between 1987 and 1992, and by 1998 women were elected to a majority of the council seats in at least five Alabama municipalities using fair representation voting. To learn more about fair representation voting methods and how they work, go to our proportional voting page.
Today, almost 80 governing bodies throughout Connecticut are elected using limited voting.
The Connecticut Legislature first enacted a limited voting system in 1949 to ensure that governing boards and commissions would reflect the voices of both majority and minority groups. The Legislature created a default limited voting system applicable to all board of education elections in Connecticut.
In 1959, under the Connecticut Minority Representation statute, a default limited nominations system was applied to all elected boards and commissions. Under this system, each political party can only hold a certain number of seats on any governing body. As described in a judicial decision finding Connecticut's statutory scheme to be constitutional, "[These statutes were] not meant to wrest power and control from the majority, but to assure intelligent decision-making." LoFrisco v. Schaffer, 341 F. Supp. 743, 750 (1972).
Lake Park, Florida, was sued by the Department of Justice in 2009, which argued that the at-large system used by Lake Park to elect its town council diluted African American voting strength. At the time of the lawsuit Lake Park's population was 48% African American, but no African American had ever been elected to the Town Council. The town settled the lawsuit by adopting the single vote method of limited voting, and has since conducted a number of elections with that system.
To learn more about the single-vote method and how it works, go to our proportional representation page.
Fair representation voting was a fixture in Illinois state government for over a century: the state elected its state representatives using cumulative voting from 1870 to 1980. Initially adopted to reduce partisan polarization after the Civil War, cumulative voting was widely supported for much of the time it was in use.
John Porter, former Republican Illinois Congressman and proponent of fair representation voting systems, stated that under cumulative voting he and his colleagues "operated in a less partisan environment because both parties represented the entire state.” Republican politician Tom Campbell became interested in other fair representation voting reforms because of his positive experience with cumulative voting in Illinois. In 2001, a bipartisan task force found that fair representation voting enhanced voter choice, improved representation, promoted independence of legislators from party leaders, and generated richer deliberation and statewide consensus. Unfortunately, fair representation voting for the Illinois house was repealed in 1980 as part of a campaign to reduce the number of seats in the state legislature.
Since its repeal, leaders from both major parties in Illinois have repeatedly called for its return. In 2001, Democrat Rep. Feigenholtz and Republican Rep. Winkel co-sponsored a measure for an amendment to the Illinois constitution that would divide the state into 39 districts, with 3 representatives elected in each district. A return to cumulative voting was also supported by then state senator Barack Obama, who introduced a bill to return fair representation voting to Illinois.
Cumulative voting continues in Peoria, Illinois which has elected five members at-large using cumulative voting since 1991. As a result, Peoria has had consistent African American representation on the city council since that time. The election of political newcomers Ryan Spain in 2007 and John Morris in 1999 showcased how the system encourages turnover in elections rather than continually electing incumbents to office. In fact, cumulative voting was so successful at fostering proportional representation in the city that officials decided to continue using the system in 2011 when motions were made to change it. To learn more about cumulative voting and how it works, go to our proportional representation voting page.
In the early to mid 20th century, some two-dozen cities in ten states adopted ranked choice voting in at-large elections in order to better reflect their voters and promote better governance. Although most repealed the system (largely due to anxieties regarding the election of minority candidates and changes in election machinery), the tradition continues in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In Cambridge, the effort to adopt ranked choice voting was led by members of its African American community. Despite the election of James Lew, the first African American council member, in 1903, the African American community in Cambridge struggled to obtain adequate representation in the first half of the 20th century. It was this need to increase representation for African Americans which prompted Cambridge to adopt ranked choice voting in 1941. Since that time, African Americans – as well as women and other racial minorities – have consistently obtained representation on both the city council and school board.
Ranked choice voting has been well-received by Cambridge voters. As civic activist Rob Winters put it: “Almost all voting Cambridge residents feel that the intent of our election method is a good one . . . they find the act of voting to be simple and easy to understand.” Cambridge voters have rejected attempts to repeal the system on five separate occasions.
Based on Cambridge’s success, other communities in Massachusetts have considered adopting ranked choice voting in recent years and many state organizations have endorsed it as well. Ranked choice voting is used for elections in some of Massachusetts’ universities, including Harvard and MIT. To learn more about at-large ranked choice voting and how it works, see our ranked choice voting page.
In 2006, the Department of Justice filed a complaint against the Village of Port Chester, alleging that its at-large elections were diluting the voting power of its Hispanic residents. Unlike many of the neighboring towns in the suburbs of New York City, the Village of Port Chester is majority-Hispanic. According to the 2010 census, almost 60 percent of Port Chester's residents identify as Hispanic or Latino while only 31 percent identify as white and only 7 percent as black. New York state, by contrast, is approximately 59 percent white, 18 percent Hispanic or Latino, and 16 percent black. Yet, as of 2006, Port Chester had never elected a Hispanic member to its governing body.
In response to the Department of Justice suit, Port Chester adopted a cumulative voting system in 2009. In doing so, Port Chester became the first New York community to use cumulative voting since the early 20th century. Shortly thereafter, in 2010, Port Chester elected its first-ever Hispanic member to its Board of Trustees. Today, the Board contains both Hispanic and black members. To learn more about fair representation voting methods and how they work, go to our proportional representation page.
North Carolina is closely tied with the struggle for proportional representation. After the 2012 election, the state enacted some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country and is often in the voting rights spotlight. Voting Rights Act litigation continues to be one of the primary mechanisms to mitigate the discriminatory effects of North Carolina’s voting laws and to ensure that minorities have access to representation.
In 1989, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Martin County Board of Commissioners claiming minority vote dilution in violation of section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Despite the fact that Martin County contained cities like Jamesville, which was 40 percent African American, only one African American had ever been elected to the county commission. As a result, Martin County adopted a limited voting system in 1992, and saw marked improvement the next year when two African American county commissioners were elected for the first time.
In that same year, similar improvements occurred in Perquimans County, which adopted a single-vote form of limited voting. In the both 1998 and 2000 elections, two African American members were elected to the county commission and racial minorities – representing 28 percent of the population – held one-third of the county commission and school board seats.
Since then, eight more jurisdictions in North Carolina have adopted limited voting systems, and minority vote dilution has been greatly reduced in those communities. North Carolina politicians have also taken up the mantle of fair representation voting, including at the federal level. Representative Mel Watt, for instance, introduced H.R.1173 to Congress in 1999. The bill would allow states to use multi-member congressional districts, and encouraged legislators to discuss fair representation voting systems. To learn more about fair representation voting methods and how they work, go to our proportional representation page.
Fair representation voting methods have only recently arrived in Ohio. In 2008, the Department of Justice sued Euclid, Ohio arguing that electing its at-large Board of Education elections unfairly diluted the voting power of African American voters. Although Euclid’s African American voting age population exceeded 40%, it had long been unable to elect a candidate of choice to the Board of Education. In response to the lawsuit, Euclid adopted the single-vote method, a form of limited voting, for its elections. While an African American candidate was not elected immediately after the single-vote method was adopted, the African American community succeeded in electing its candidate of choice. Since then, an African American candidate or candidate of choice has reliably served on the Euclid Board of Education. To learn more about the single-vote method and how it works, go to our proportional representation page.
Pennsylvania has a long history with fair representation voting methods. Charles Buckalew, a United States senator from Pennsylvania, wrote a seminal work on the benefits of proportional representation in 1872. In it, Buckalew describes how proportional representation increases voter satisfaction and diversity in government and how the adoption of limited voting in Sunbury, Pennsylvania in 1870 allowed for the election of Democrats to a traditionally all-Republican municipal government.
Pennsylvania counties have used fair representation methods for over 100 years. Since 1871, most Pennsylvania counties have used limited voting to elect their three county commissioners at-large. The use of limited voting in Pennsylvania is not restricted to county elections. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania's largest city, has used limited voting to elect its seven at-large city council members since 1951.
The primary reason for Philadelphia’s adoption of limited voting was to end partisan gridlock and single-party rule by Republicans. Since its implementation, Philadelphia has steadily elected more Democratic candidates, with Democrats currently holding 66 percent of the council’s at-large seats. Philadelphia's limited voting now works to protect the Republican Party from being completely shut out of Philadelphia's city government.
Limited voting is an extremely modest form of fair representation voting, but it can serve as a critical stepping stone to fairer methods. In 2004, Governor Ed Rendell formed the Election Reform Task Force to develop reforms for Pennsylvania’s elections. In its final report, the task force recommended that Pennsylvania adopt instant runoff voting or another fair representation method statewide. To learn more about fair representation voting methods and how they work, go to our proportional representation page.
In South Dakota, the use of single-winner at-large elections has long prevented the election of Native American candidates. South Dakota has the third highest concentration of Native Americans, making up approximately 8.8% of the total population. Yet, Native Americans remain starkly underrepresented. The recent adoption of fair representation voting methods in several communities has helped to promote Native American representation.
In 1989, Sisseton, South Dakota became the first South Dakota community to use cumulative voting to elect its school board. In its first election using cumulative voting, almost 50% of Native American voters turned out and more than 90% of Native American voters reported “plumping” their votes behind a candidate of choice. As a result, a Native American candidate was successfully elected to the school board for the first time.
Since then, both Wagner, South Dakota (2002) and Martin, South Dakota (2007) have implemented cumulative voting for local elections. Despite Native Americans making up more than 40% of the population of Wagner and Martin, each jurisdiction had elected less than 5 Native American candidates over the past 20 years. After the ACLU of South Dakota filed complaints, both towns adopted cumulative voting methods. As a result, Native American candidates have been consistently elected in both communities. To learn more about fair representation voting methods and how they work, go to our proportional representation page.
Texas has had a strong connection with fair representation voting since the early 1990s. From 1991 to 1995, more than 50 jurisdictions adopted fair representation voting methods, largely as the result of Voting Rights Act lawsuits. As Governor of Texas in 1995, George W. Bush signed legislation enabling local school districts to use cumulative and limited voting to elect their school boards. Fair representation voting methods have since been used to great effect across the state.
In 2000, Amarillo Independent School District in Amarillo, Texas, which is home to more than 190,000 people, adopted cumulative voting for its school board. Despite minorities comprising over 20 percent of the population, Amarillo ISD had never elected a non-white school board member. Consequently, the School District became the subject of a Voting Rights Act lawsuit initially asking for election from districts with one majority-minority district. After adopting cumulative voting, however, Amarillo ISD elected both African American and Latina candidates to its school board, far exceeding the expected outcome of the lawsuit. In subsequent elections, minority candidates continued to succeed. Currently, almost fifty jurisdictions continue to use cumulative and limited voting to elect their school boards and city councils.