Cumulative Voting in South DakotaThe under-representation of minorities is one of the problems inherent in single-member and at-large districts using plurality electoral rules. In South Dakota, Native Americans have struggled to gain representation because of such electoral rules. In two South Dakota city school boards and one city council, the adoption of cumulative voting has helped to alleviate this problem.
A U.S. District Court on February 9, 2007 ordered the city of Martin to implement cumulative voting for city council elections. The six-member, at-large council will be elected three at a time. Each voter will have three votes, which they can allocate any way they wish. The order is to ensure the city's sizable Native American population, protected under the federal Voting Rights Act, has the opportunity to elect candidates of choice. Despite comprising over a third of Martin residents and a third of voters at the last election, geographically dispersed Native Americans have consistently failed to win representation in the city's district system.
Sisseton was the first school district in South Dakota to adopt cumulative voting. The Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux tribe comprises approximately 34% of the population in the district, yet Native Americans rarely won elections under the at-large system -- only two out of 23 Native American candidates were elected between 1977 and 1989. Even though Native Americans fielded candidates in every election, only two were able to gain seats. One was chosen to fill a vacancy in 1982 and was allegedly handpicked by the Anglo board. The other Native American to hold a seat was elected in 1985 when only two Anglos were running for the three possible seats. Thus, one of the two Native American candidates was guaranteed a spot on the school board that year. In 1984, a group of Native Americans filed suit against Sisseton school district and challenged the districtís voting system. The suit was finally settled in 1988 with the agreement that cumulative voting would be implemented in future elections.
In June of 1989 cumulative voting was used for the first time to elect the Sisseton school board. Cumulative voting proved to be quite successful. According to political science professor Todd Donovanís data, in the 1989 election 93% of Native Americans used all three of their votes to elect a Native American, while only 33% of whites cast all three of their votes for a single candidate. Of the seven candidates contesting the three seats, two whites and one Native American were elected to the district school board, with the Native American candidate, David Selvage, receiving the most votes. Also, contrary to the contention that cumulative voting would be too difficult to understand, 90% of voters who participated under the new cumulative voting system found it easy to understand.
There is also evidence to suggest that elections using cumulative voting helped mobilize the Native American population in Sisseton. According to Todd Donovan, almost half of all the Native Americans (but only about 17% of whites) reported that they rarely or never participated in the school-board elections under the previous at-large system.
More recently, the Wagner school board also adopted cumulative voting. In 2002, Native Americans represented 42% of the districtís population, yet held no seats on the seven-seat school board. Historically, only three Native Americans have been elected to the school board in the past twenty years. As a result of these inequalities, the ACLU filed a suit on behalf of three Native Americans.
June 17, 2003 marked the first Wagner school board election that used cumulative voting. Incumbents James Eggers and Michael Denker retained their two seats with the respective votes of 580 and 455. The third seat was a tie between John Swatek and John Sully, who both received 153 votes. John Sully, the only Native American now sitting on the school board, ultimately won the seat. He said that the adoption of cumulative voting motivated him to run for the seat, as he thought it would improve his chances of winning.