On May 6th, voters in Texas went to the polls to elect local representatives to their city councils, school boards, boards of trustees, and more. In more than 50 such jurisdictions, including Amarillo, voters had cumulative voting rights. Cumulative voting, a form of fair representation voting, has been successful in empowering racial and ethnic minority voters in Texas, but this year’s election demonstrated its limitations as well.
Cumulative Voting Rights
Like winner-take-all at-large elections, cumulative voting allows voters to cast one vote per seat to be elected. However, with cumulative voting rights, voters are not limited to casting only one vote per candidate. They can “cumulate” or “plump” their votes, casting all of them for one candidate, or splitting them among two or more. That makes cumulative voting a fair representation voting method, because a majority group cannot dominate the election. If they vote together, a sufficiently large minority group can elect a candidate of choice.
Unlike ranked choice voting, cumulative voting requires coordination and strategy to be used effectively. Cumulative voting works well when a like-minded minority group is only large enough to elect one seat, when they are strategic enough to run only one candidate, and when they use their cumulative voting rights to concentrate their votes on that one candidate.
Localities in Texas originally began using cumulative voting as a result of Voting Rights Act lawsuits that alleged that the winner-take-all voting method used at the time was unfairly and illegally diluting the votes of racial or ethnic minorities. Those localities in Texas are among the over 200 local jurisdictions using fair representation voting in the United States today. Although winner-take-all methods have always been more common, there is a rich American history of fair representation voting methods like ranked choice voting, cumulative voting, and limited voting. Over 100 of those jurisdictions adopted one of these methods specifically to empower a racial or ethnic minority population after they had faced vote dilution under winner-take-all rules.
Results in Texas
Most of the jurisdictions in Texas using cumulative voting are very small. Fair representation voting can help with such places, because the alternative remedy of dividing the jurisdictions into districts is particularly difficult with very small populations. However, the Amarillo Independent School District and Amarillo Board of Regents are exceptions. The Amarillo ISD serves over 32,000 students. Their results can help fill in information on how cumulative voting operates in Texas jurisdictions today.
In cumulative voting, the percent of votes earned by winning candidates may be quite low, because the total number of votes is triple or quadruple the number of voters. In three-winner cumulative voting, a candidate is sure to win if they earn more than 25% of votes; in four-winner cumulative voting, a candidate is sure to win if they earn more than 20% of votes. The following table shows the election results for the two cumulative voting contests in Amarillo:
Although there were two candidates of choice for the Latino community in the Board of Regents contest (Alfonso Zambrono and Daniel Martinez), neither were elected in this most recent election. The two candidates split the votes of their supporters, which hurt the leading Latino candidate’s chances of victory. There is evidence in Amarillo that "candidates who are members of racial minorities… [may not have fully] exploited the opportunities presented by cumulative voting," according to election expert Dave Rausch. This punctuates the need for both candidate and voter education with cumulative voting. However, cumulative voting was successful in ensuring representation for one minority community in Amarillo: a candidate of choice for the African-American community, incumbent James Allen, won re-election.
Finally, "the election results suggests that cumulative voting is used by voters in the AISD Board of Trustees election more [effectively] than in the Amarillo College Board of Regents election," Rausch says. Only five candidates ran for the four open seats on Amarillo’s School Board. Four of the candidates were incumbents, while one was not. As a result, there were only limited number of options for Amarillo voters.
The Limits of Cumulative Voting in Amarillo
Cumulative voting requires a minority community to be highly cohesive in order to elect their candidate of choice. A community must know in advance to vote together for their candidate of choice by placing all of their votes for a single candidate, rather than spreading them out over multiple candidates. This requires a high degree of coordination by candidates and by the community itself, which is not always possible in certain circumstances.
Moreover, cumulative voting may incentivize a reduction in voter choice. If one interest group is on the verge of electing two candidates, but could also split their votes and elect no candidates of choice, they may be under pressure to instead allow for only one candidate to guarantee at least one seat. Yet this would reduce the amount of choice for all voters, and can distort the true interests of many voters. This incentive to suppress candidacies in order not to split votes is a key limitation of cumulative voting.
These two limitations makes cumulative voting relatively inflexible over time. As demographic and other circumstances change, cumulative voting is not able to quickly and effectively adapt. For example, if the circumstances of a locality change (such as demographic or voting pattern change) so that the specific needs that cumulative voting address no longer exist, this method of voting can be detrimental to the full representation of all voters.
Amarillo is a complex story which includes elements of all of these issues.
As a result, ranked choice voting (“RCV”) in a multi-winner election would be a viable and better alternative for a locality such as Amarillo, Texas. RCV allows for a greater number of options, and a greater amount of diversity, for elected representatives. Unlike cumulative voting, RCV does not incentivize a limited number of candidates for minority communities, as voters can simply choose their first-choice candidate as their first choice while also supporting their second-choice candidate – as their second choice. Moreover, minority communities do not need to have the same extent of cohesion in voting patterns when using RCV. This makes the system encourages more positive, rather than negative campaigns; candidates do better when they build themselves up instead of tearing their opponents down or relying on their opponents failure. In short, while cumulative voting can serve as an effective mechanism for increasing representation in some communities, it should only be implemented in a limited number of places. Ranked choice voting, on the other hand, can and should be used extensively as a way to ensure greater representation for all communities.