Cumulative Voting

Cumulative voting is a semi-proportional voting system based on voting for individual candidates. It promotes better representation of independents and political minorities.

As with all proportional and semi-proportional systems, cumulative voting (CV) requires representatives to be elected from multi-seat districts -- districts with more than one representative. Voters in each district have as many votes as there are seats to be filled, as would be true in a plurality election, but CV allows voters to express a strong preference for their favorite candidate or candidates – unlike plurality, they are not restricted to giving just one vote to a candidate. If like-minded voters in a political minority concentrate their votes on one candidate in a three-seat election, for example, they can win representation despite their minority status. In a three-seat district elected by cumulative voting, a candidate can be sure of winning one seat with the support of about 25 percent of voters.

There are two varieties of cumulative voting.

CV tends to elect legislatures that more fairly reflect the make-up of the populations they represent than winner-take-all elections, as both majorities and minorities can be represented in rough proportion to their popular support. And because it allows for successful independent candidacies, CV is an attractive alternative in political situations where individual candidates are seen as more important than party politics, as is often the case in the United States.

CV, however, has its drawbacks, as indicated by it being described as a "semi-proportional" system. It suffers from some of the same defects as limited voting [see factsheet __]. One is the problem of a like-minded constituency splitting its vote. For example, if a voting constituency or a political party has too many candidates, it can "split" its votes among its own competing candidates and not win a fair share of seats. Candidates also must compete aggressively against candidates in their party – such intra-party competition can undercut coherent parties. In order to prevent vote splitting and intra-party competition, a party or like-minded constituency often seeks to limit candidacies and organize individual voters to allocate their ballots among those candidates. As a result, some argue that CV can concentrate too much power in the hands of leaders of parties or non-partisan communities of interest.

CV has been used to settle many voting rights cases since initial settlements in the late 1980s in places such as Chilton County (Alabama), Alamogordo (New Mexico) and Peoria (Illinois). More than 50 jurisdictions in Texas have adopted cumulative voting in the 1990s, including Amarillo for elections to its school board. Cumulative voting also has been imposed by federal judges in three voting rights cases, as of June 2000, but has yet to be upheld by higher courts.

There is also a growing movement to restore CV for state legislative elections in Illinois, where it was used to elect the state’s house of representatives from 1870 to 1980, producing numerous advantages over the current single-seat districts used in Illinois. Backers include former Republican governor Jim Edgar and the Democratic head f the state senate Emil Jones.  Some major corporations use CV to elect their board of directors.

This factsheet is part of the CVD Factbook Series, a compilation of one-page factsheets covering voting systems and voting system reforms.