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Debunking the Myths about Port Chester

by Alec Slatky // Published June 25, 2010

             Port Chester's historic Board of Trustees election this month, which utilized cumulative voting for the first time in New York State history, has drawn a great deal of national attention to the issue of alternative voting systems in the Westchester County community, including two articles in the New York Times and two national stories distributed by the Associated Press. Turnout rose by nearly 25% from last year's competitive race for mayor, the Village's political diversity was well-represented, and the election included the first-ever election of African American (a Republican) and Latino (a Democrat) candidates to the Board.

            The key change for Port Chester was its adoption of cumulative voting. Cumulative voting is a well-tested variation of traditional at-large elections in the United States, one that is used in dozens of American elections, and was used for more than a century to elect the Illinois House of Representatives. (This year's Republican nominee for governor in Illinois, Bill Brady, supports bringing cumulative voting back to the state, as do such luminaries in Illinois as former White House counsel Abner Mikva and former governor Jim Edgar).

            But as with any media coverage, there has been no dearth of misinformation about the case that brought about a change in the voting system, the reasons behind the switch to cumulative voting, and cumulative voting itself. Media Matters has written two pieces about the misrepresentation of the election by Fox News, but Fox is not the only source whose coverage hasn't been entirely accurate. This post aims to set the record straight and correct some of the more prevalent fallacies that have been disseminated by the mainstream media.

 

Myth: Judge Stephen Robinson forced Port Chester to implement cumulative voting.
Reality: In 2006, the Department of Justice filed suit against Port Chester alleging that the Voting Rights Act had been violated. Judge Robinson ruled in favor of the plaintiff, and as is standard in Voting Rights Act cases, required that a remedy be instituted. The Department of Justice recommended dividing the village into 6 districts, at least one of which would have a Hispanic majority, and Judge Robinson was willing to approve this plan if Port Chester could not formulate an alternative plan. However, Port Chester preferred cumulative voting. Judge Robinson found the proposal to be "legally acceptable" and allowed Port Chester to proceed with cumulative voting as a remedy.

Myth: Having 6 votes is un-American, because Hispanic voters get 6 votes in this voting system, and others don't.
Reality: This is completely incorrect. First, Port Chester voters already had 6 votes - one for every member of its Village Board of Trustees. Indeed, most local elections in the United States are held using voting methods where voters have more than one vote, because there is more than one winner. Second, Hispanic voters - as well as white, African-American, Asian, and all other voters - get 6 votes under cumulative voting in Port Chester. All voters have 6 votes, and can distribute them as they wish - and it is expected that a majority of voters of every racial and ethnic group took advantage of their option to give more than one vote to their favorite candidates.

Myth: Cumulative voting is complicated.
Reality: Cumulative voting is quite simple. An exit poll survey is expected to show that most voters did not find it complicated and that a large majority of voters took advantage of their new power to give more than one vote to a candidate. The instructions provided in the educational materials and on the Port Chester Votes website read as follows: "You can use your six votes in any manner you wish: you might cast one vote for six different candidates, or you may decide to give three votes each to two candidates. You can give four votes to one candidate and one vote each to two other candidates, or you might cast all six of your votes for your favorite candidate. Any combination of votes totaling up to six votes is acceptable."

Myth: Cumulative voting is not a legitimate method of voting / cumulative voting was crafted specifically for this case.
Reality: Cumulative voting is a legitimate voting system that is used by a number of other institutions, including school boards and councils in Amarillo (TX), Chilton County (AL) and Peoria (IL). In addition, many corporations use cumulative voting to elect members of their boards. Cumulative voting is sometimes used to remedy Voting Rights Act challenges like Port Chester's, but it was not created specifically for this case.

Myth: Cumulative voting violates the principle of "one man, one vote."
Reality: "One man, one vote" describes the ideas that every voter's vote must count equally towards representation. Infringements of the principle generally involve unbalanced districts or instances where certain people fail to follow the rules. Port Chester involves neither, and in fact attempts to preserve the principle by avoiding the inherently political redistricting process. Under cumulative voting, each voter has six votes - the number of seats on the Board of Trustees - but this was also true under Port Chester's old system. Each of the six votes was required to be allocated to a different candidate (collectively - elections were staggered so that two seats were elected at a time; the general concept holds true, though). Under the new system, the six votes can be distributed any way the voter desires. Just because each voter doesn't literally have one vote - a feature that results from the multiple winners of the election - doesn't mean the one man, one vote principle is violated. In sum: every voter has an equal number of votes that corresponds with the number of seats, and therefore an equal chance to choose the members to fill those seats; one man, one vote is thus preserved.

Myth: Cumulative voting violates majority rule.
Reality: Majority rule ensures that the majority coalition of voters is represented by a majority coalition in a legislative body. Cumulative voting does not violate the principle of majority rule, because the majority voter coalition still holds a majority on the Board of Trustees. Under the previous system, the non-Hispanic majority bloc held all of the seats, which is not what majority rule implies in multiple-winner elections; it does not ensure that the majority coalition of voters control all of the legislators. Certainly, cumulative voting increases minority - political minority - representation. But that increase is only intended to restore the Board of Trustees to proportional representation, where the minority is still a minority on the Board but has a voice. In the case of Port Chester, this hotly contested election led to the election of two Republicans, two Democrats and two candidates running outside the major parties - a fair reflection of the Village's diversity of political opinion.

Myth: Port Chester switched to cumulative voting to remedy the fact that a Hispanic candidate had never been elected.
Reality: This claim is probably the most prevalent, and subtly fallacious, of all the misinformation about Port Chester. In 2006, the Department of Justice filed suit because the Hispanic community's candidate of choice was continually denied election. The Voting Rights Act, as first passed in 1965 and then amended in 1982 when signed by then-president Ronald Reagan, is designed to uphold the protections of the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, and as part of those protections, ensure that racial minorities are not consistently denied an opportunity to elect a candidate of choice. Judge Stephen Robinson, who was appointed to the bench by George W. Bush, presided over the case. After hearing expert testimony, Judge Robinson concluded that both "the Hispanic community in Port Chester is politically cohesive and tends to vote as a bloc for the same candidates" and "the non-Hispanic majority in Port Chester votes sufficiently as a bloc to enable it to defeat Hispanic candidates of choice." Hispanic candidates of choice need not be Hispanic, just preferred by the Hispanic constituency. Judge Robinson's decision cited evidence that "Hispanics also voted cohesively in endogenous elections where there was no Hispanic candidate." The issue is not whether Hispanic candidates were discriminated against, but that Hispanic candidates of choice were, and by extension, so were Hispanic voters. Thus, the case appeared to involve discrimination against a racial minority, but upon closer examination, it is truly about discrimination against a political minority, which happens to also be a racial minority.

Myth: Cumulative voting assumes that voters can only be represented by candidates of their own race / because a Hispanic candidate was elected, the system was a success.
Reality: As previously stated, Hispanic candidates of choice need not actually be Hispanic, and they often were not. If the election produced a winner that was a Hispanic candidate of choice but happened to be white (or any other race), that would have been satisfactory as well.

Myth: Cumulative voting only benefits Hispanics.
Reality: Cumulative voting benefits all minorities, including Hispanics, independents, third parties, Tea Party supporters, enthusiastic backers of major party candidates, and so on, because it gives them a voice on the Board proportional to their level of support. Two Democrats, two Republicans, a Conservative, and an independent with conservative leanings will comprise the Board of Trustees for the next term. The top vote getter was independent candidate Bart Didden, followed by white Democrat Daniel Brakewood. Conservative John Branca finished 3rd. Hispanic Democrat Luis Marino finished 4th, African-American Republican Joseph Kenner finished 5th, Republican Sam Terenzi finished 6th and African American Democrat Gregory Adams finished 7th, just outside of a winning position. Port Chester's results reflect the common reality that when voters are able to define their preferences more precisely, all voters can benefit from cumulative voting.

 

            These are some of the myths that have been spread about the Port Chester cumulative voting election. Cumulative voting does not violate the Constitution, the "one man, one vote" principle, or majority rule, and is in fact a reasonable voting system for any election with multiple winners.