Voices & Choices

Cumulative voting comes close - but not all the way - to fair representation

 Cumulative voting comes close - but not all the way - to fair representation

When election results fail to represent the voters’ will, our republic has a problem.

The threat lies in part with at-large, winner-take-all systems that allow a single majority group to elect every winner on a city council or other legislative body. This can mean that the resulting group of winners fails to accurately represent the diversity of voters’ viewpoints and votes.

Various municipalities have adopted more fair election methods to address fair representation issues for their constituents. Among them, ranked choice voting (used in Maine, San Francisco, and numerous other locations across the country) and the lesser-known system of cumulative voting (used in more than 60 jurisdictions including Amarillo, Texas, and Peoria, Illinois) attempt to ensure fair representation for citizens--particularly people of color.  

By allowing citizens to assert their voting power as a bloc, cumulative voting intends to achieve increased candidate diversity and allow minority groups of voters to elect at least one candidate of choice -- ensuring that the voices of people of color are heard. For this reason, cumulative voting has been adopted in many municipalities as a remedy to Voting Rights Act violations.

Upcoming school board elections in Amarillo on May 4 will showcase the method and its potential benefits, which are also apparent in Port Chester, New York, the target of a U.S. Department of Justice complaint in 2006. On March 19, Port Chester held an election for city trustees in which three candidates of color —a Republican, Democrat, and independent—won seats on the board.

Similarly, cumulative voting has been adopted in Peoria for its city council elections, where a February primary and an April 2 general election both utilized the method. In Peoria, a city with a history of strained race relations, Rita Ali, the African-American candidate received the greatest percentage of the vote (24.88 percent) and won a seat on the five-member council.

While cumulative voting often achieves its purpose of ensuring more fair representation for voters, past elections in Amarillo illustrate the limitations of the method, particularly its susceptibility to vote-splitting and its tendency to encourage strategic voting and campaigning.

Cumulative voting typically requires a degree of coordination and strategy across communities to prevent vote-spreading across multiple potential candidates of choice and, therefore, dilution of a community’s vote.

In Amarillo’s 2017 Board of Regents election, the two Latinx candidates(Alfonso Zambrono and Daniel Martinez) split the vote of that community. Neither was elected and the community had no direct representation in government.

Additionally, cumulative voting can lead to low turnout and a lack of candidate choice. In Port Chester’s most recent election, there were seven candidates vying for six seats in an election that saw turnout below 20 percent. In Peoria, while lack of competition was not an issue -- there were 10 candidates vying for five seats -- turnout also languished below the 20 percent mark.

In certain instances, multi-winner ranked choice voting (RCV)—by ensuring that vote-splitting and strategic voting do not dilute the will of the electorate--may provide a better remedy for enabling marginalized groups to have a voice in their communities. Additionally, RCV inspires positive, policy-focused elections—rather than divisive, vitriolic campaigns—encouraging increased turnout and candidate choice.

While it is clear that cumulative voting has proven capable at increasing the representation of people of color in office, RCV avoids the potential pitfalls of cumulative voting while providing many of the same benefits.

Illustration by Mikhaila Markham

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