While most of the nation focused on this year's presidential race, a number of important electoral developments took place in several Alabama races. The cities of Centre and Guin, the town of Myrtlewood, and Chilton County all held successful elections using the cumulative voting electoral method.
Cumulative voting is a semi-proportional, at-large election system that brings us closer to the principle of proportional representation: the majority has the right to govern, but all groups have a right to representation. The system has been used in dozens of communities to help communities of color gain fair representation in local government. Cumulative voting gives voters as many votes as there are seats to be filled, but allows them to apportion their votes as they see fit. For example, in a hypothetical five seat election, a voter could choose to give one vote each to five different candidates, two votes to one and candidate and three to another, all five votes to a single candidate, or any other combination of vote allocation they choose. This flexible system prevents 51% of voters in an at-large system from controlling 100% of seats.
Low representation of racial minorities in the South has long been a serious problem, and cumulative voting and other proportional representation methods such as choice voting provide an important means to bring fair representation to all. The system avoids Shaw v. Reno issues, as it does not use race in districting to ensure minority representation. This also makes cumulative voting an especially attractive voting system, where communities of color are geographically dispersed and unable to be packed into a single district. This year, the cities of Centre and Guin, as well as Chilton County all held successful cumulative elections where communities of color earned a fair share of seats. The town of Myrtlewood also conducted a cumulative voting election, but no candidates of color sought office this cycle.
Chilton County has a total voting age population of 29,428, 87.6% of which are White and 9.6% of which are African American. The county uses cumulative voting to elect representatives to their county board of commissioners, which consists of seven members. This November, incumbent commissioner Bobby Agee was the only African American candidate to run. Agee was re-elected with 10.86% of the vote, the second highest vote total of any of other candidates running for County commissioner. That vote share could be achieved on one extreme by gaining one vote from as many as 76% of voters to on the other extreme gaining seven votes from 10.86% of voters. Past exit polls have shown that Agee draws seven votes from most black voters, but also some white support. Under cumulative voting, Chilton County African Americans have consistently had representation on the county commission.
Twelve candidates sought office for the commission: seven Republicans and five Democrats (with six of seven incumbents seeking to hold their seats). Interestingly, three incumbents were defeated, two Democrats and one Republican, with the final makeup of the commission now being four Republicans and three Democrats. The prior composition of the commission was 4 Democrats, and 3 Republicans. Note that in the presidential race, Chilton voters split 77% for Bush and 23% for Kerry.
City of Centre
The City of Centre has a total voting age population of 2,590, which is 89.7% white and 8.6% African American. Cumulative voting is used to elect the city's seven council members. In Centre’s most recent elections, 11 people, including two candidates of color, ran for office. One of them, Rita Stubbs, was elected – receiving 410 votes, the second lowest vote total of a successful candidate – while the other, Henry Wright, received 330 votes. With these results, cumulative voting was again successful in bringing the make-up of the city council in line with the city's racial demographics.
City of Guin
The city of Guin, which also uses cumulative voting to elect its city council members, has a total voting age population of 1,840. 10.9% of that population is African American and 88.1% is White. Guin’s City Council is made up of seven council members. In their most recent election, 17 candidates ran for these seven seats. Two of these candidates were from communities of color. Roger Agnew was the one of the two elected – with 433 votes, the lowest vote total of any of the elected candidates. The second minority candidate, Cerell Metcalfe received 309 votes. But again, these results are reflective of the city's demographic composition and continue to reflect the success cumulative voting brings in electing candidates of color to local bodies.
The experience in the cities of Guin and Centre illustrates one of the potential shortcomings of the cumulative voting system — the spoiler problem. By running two candidates, in excess of the minority share of the population, the minority community ran the risk of splitting the vote between the candidates, and potentially not being able to gather enough votes to elect either. It is interesting to note that in Chilton County, which has a similar minority population to that of both cities, the single minority candidate received the second highest vote total among candidates. If we add together the vote totals for both minority candidates in Guin, the “hybrid” minority candidate would have received 742 votes, which would have made him or her by far the highest vote getter. If we do the same for Centre, the combined minority candidate receives 740 votes, so becoming the third highest vote getter. Likewise, Republicans in Chilton County might have fared better, had they run fewer candidates. The seven GOP candidates split their vote, allowing the Democrats to consolidate support among five candidates and fare better than they otherwise might. This is one drawback to cumulative voting, that makes it less ideal than choice voting. Unlike cumulative voting, choice voting presents no risk of a spoiler situation, as voters' can transfer support from a losing candidate to a more viable one, through use of a ranked choice ballot. Parties and groups can run as many candidates as they wish without risk of them adversely affecting each other's prospects. Nonetheless, cumulative voting is a viable solution for improving racial representation in local at-large bodies, and is a vast improvement over at-large, winner-take-all systems.
Taking these results as a whole, cumulative voting tended to create representative governing boards in bodies using it. When minority candidates sought office, they won seats in proportion to their groups' share of the population as a whole. Thus, cumulative voting clearly supported representative government, and did not exclude minorities from representation. At the same time, the potential vote-splitting candidacies in Chilton, Guin and Centre, along with the fact that minority candidates did not even run in Myrtlewood suggests that more community education and civic engagement is still necessary if communities are to derive the full benefits from cumulative voting.
Proportional representation voting methods were first adopted in Alabama during the 1980s. Today, twenty-eight different Alabama governing bodies use some form of proportional representation - twenty-three use limited voting and five use cumulative voting. With the exception of the Conecuh County Democratic Executive Committee and the city of Fort Payne, all of the alternative voting systems in Alabama were first used in 1988 as a result of settlement agreements in the landmark, omnibus redistricting lawsuit, Dillard v. Crenshaw County. In that case, the Alabama Democratic Conference sued 180 jurisdictions in the state, challenging at-large elections that disadvantaged African Americans.
As a result of the lawsuit, the first known application of limited voting was put to the test in Conecuh County. Amazingly, the elections went over extremely well. There was virtually no local resistance to the plan, despite the fact that the local Democratic Party leadership and the probate judge had made it extremely difficult for blacks to be elected to the committee in the past. As a result of the change, blacks went from making up less than 10 percent of the county committee to over 40 percent after the election in 1982.
After the success of limited voting methods in Conecuh County, many other governing bodies have followed in their footsteps by adopting proportional representation voting methods. As a result, nearly all have elected African Americans for the first time. Two governing bodies in Kinsey County and Waldo County, along with the Conecuh County Democratic Executive Committee, had two black candidates elected at the same time in one election cycle.
Women have also benefited from proportional representation. Of the 28 jurisdictions with proportioanl representation, the number of female elected officials grew from a low of 25 in 1987 (prior to proportional representation voting methods) to a high of 49 in 1992 (after proportional representation voting methods). Between 1988 and 1998 women were elected to a majority of the council seats in at least five of the municipalities that use alternative voting.
Proportional representation has truly made a difference in Alabama. With the aid of a host of community activists, civil rights organizations, attorneys, and others interested in fair representation Alabama local governments now look more like their communities. African Americans, women, and even those whose political ideology is not popular in this area of the country now have a fairer method of voicing their concerns and affecting public policy. Once a stronghold of the confederate south, Alabama is now leading the nation with innovative strategies to correct past wrongs rooted in racism and divisiveness.