Voters in Pleasant Grove, Alabama made history last month when they elected African Americans candidates to their city council for the first time in city history. Pleasant Grove was able to reach this milestone because the city had adopted cumulative voting to settle a Voting Rights Act suit brought by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Despite being over 40 percent of Pleasant Grove’s population, African Americans had been unable to elect representation on the five member city council under its previous method of block voting (sometimes called “at-large voting”) but in August, voters elected three African American candidates using cumulative voting. (The only other African American to have served on the city council was appointed to fill a vacancy and lost reelection under block voting.)
Like block voting, cumulative voting gives voters as many votes as there are seats to be filled. Unlike block voting, cumulative voting lets voters award those votes however they want. In an election for a five seat city council like Pleasant Grove’s, a voter could give five candidates one vote, give one candidate five votes, or any combination in between, such as giving one candidate three votes and another two. The five candidates who get the most votes are then elected. By allowing voters to concentrate votes on a few candidates, cumulative voting enables minority communities to win representation in offices that are otherwise out of their reach.
Cumulative voting has a long history in American elections and the ability of minority groups (be they racial, political, or otherwise) to win representation under it has made cumulative voting an accepted remedy in Voting Rights Act cases, particularly in Alabama. Fair voting methods like cumulative voting and proportional ranked choice voting (which improves on cumulative voting in many ways) can help communities gain equitable representation even when they are too geographically dispersed to be drawn into an electoral district and avoids the often-contentious and divisive redistricting process entirely. Advantages like these have led to jurisdictions around the country adopting fairer methods like cumulative voting and ranked choice voting (as Eastpointe, Michigan did last year) to settle voting rights cases and address legacies of discrimination and vote dilution. As Pleasant Grove has demonstrated, a fairer process can lead to fairer representation.
Photo by Sam Dellaporta