The History of Cumulative Voting in Amarillo

In response to problems of under-representation facing communities of color in Texas, more than 57 jurisdictions within the state switched to cumulative voting between 1991 and 2000, primarily to remedy Voting Rights Act suits. In 1995, then-governor George W. Bush recognized the support for proportional voting in the state, and signed enabling legislation to allow school districts to adopt cumulative and limited voting election methods. Cumulative voting allows a political minority to gain representation by focusing its voting strength on one candidate. Specifically, it grants voters in multi-seat races as many votes as there are seats, but voters may distribute these votes freely (ie: give all votes to one candidate, or give half to one candidate and half to another, etc).

Amarillo, TX is the largest jurisdiction in the country to use cumulative voting, after having adopted the system for school board races in 2000. The Amarillo school board has seven members, and elections are staggered so that four are elected one year and three the next. Under the cumulative voting system, voters have as many votes as there are positions to be filled, and can apportion them however they wish. So, for instance, in a year where four seats were being elected, a voter could give one vote each to four candidates, two votes to two candidates, or all four votes to a single candidate.

A brief account of the system's adoption, as well as its subsequent successes is outlined below.

Minority representation under winner-take-all (pre-cumulative voting)

Amarillo is approximately 16% Latino and 6% black, but prior to 1999 had virtually no history of ethnic or racial minority representation on the school board, due to an at-large winner-take-all mode of elections, which allowed the white majority to control all of the seats. No black candidate was elected to the AISD Board of Trustees and no black was appointed to the board before 1999.  James Allen was appointed in June 1999 to complete the term of a trustee who had resigned.   Only one Hispanic was elected to the board.  Jose Rael was elected in 1972 and reelected in 1978.  David Contreras, a member of the Hispanic community, was appointed to complete an unexpired term.  An Anglo candidate defeated Contreras in a 1990 attempt to retain his seat. 

Blacks or Hispanics were candidates at least 10 times from 1980 through 1996; all were defeated by Anglo candidates.  In 1980, a black candidate was unsuccessful in a runoff election.   The same candidate ran against two Anglo candidates in 1988 and was defeated.   In 1990, an Anglo candidate defeated a black candidate and a Hispanic was unsuccessful in a bid to retain his seat.  The Hispanic candidate was able to force a runoff, but an Anglo candidate in the two-person contest defeated him.   A black candidate ran unsuccessfully against four Anglo opponents in 1996.   An Anglo candidate defeated a Hispanic candidate in 1996.  In 1998, their Anglo opponents defeated three Hispanic candidates, running in separate numbered places.

The fight for fair representation in Amarillo

Shortly after the May 1998 school board elections, two Hispanic residents, one black resident, and the League of United Latin American Citizens, Council #4427 (LULAC), brought a suit against the Amarillo Independent School District under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  The lawsuit claimed that “the present at-large, numbered place method of electing members of the board of trustees of the AISD results in a denial or abridgement of the right to vote of Hispanics and blacks on account of their race, color, or ethnicity, by having the effect of canceling out or minimizing their individual voting strength.”  After trying to work with the school board, the Amarillo Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (Amarillo NAACP) joined the suit in November 1998.

The plaintiffs originally sought a court order directing the AISD to create seven single-member districts. One of the districts would be a “majority-minority” district including a 30% Hispanic and 27% black population. However, because of concern that it wouldn't be possible to draw a compact district, both sides agreed to a cumulative voting system patterned after the system used in Alamogordo, New Mexico, and a growing number of other localities.  The two parties were able to choose a cumulative voting system because of the 1995 Texas statute permitting school districts to use alternative voting systems to elect board members.

The 2000 elections

Cumulative voting was used to elect Amarillo's school board for the first time on May 6, 2000. Four seats were elected by cumulative voting, and for the first time ever, a black candidate (James Allen) won and for the first time since the 1970s, a Latino candidate (Rita Sandoval) won both with strong support in their communities.

At the same time, voter turnout more than tripled from the last election (in part due to a ballot measure), and all sides in the voting rights case that led to the adoption of cumulative voting last year expressed satisfaction with how the system worked.

The 2002 elections

On May 4, 2002, cumulative voting was used for the second time to elect the school board.  Five candidates sought three seats, with two white incumbents, one particularly strong white challenger and one Latina candidate. The winners were one of the white incumbents, one white challenger and Latina candidate Janie Rivas. The school board now has four white representatives, two Latino representatives and one black representative--all elected either in the first cumulative voting election for four seats in May 2000 or the second cumulative voting election for three seats in May 2002. Under the old winner-take-all, at-large electoral rules, no non-white candidate had been elected for nearly two decades even though more than 40% of the student-age population and more than 20% of the voting age-population in Amarillo is non-white.

The 2000 elections had been marked by a surge in voter turnout and the first-election of a black candidate and a Latina candidate. Both of those minority candidates had won the endorsement of an influential business group named BIOS. Given that no candidate endorsed by BIOS had lost in years, some voting rights advocates were interested to see if a candidate with strong minority support could win under cumulative voting without having the endorsement of BIOS.

Although winning the endorsement of the Amarillo Globe-News, the Latina canidate Rivas did not have the endorsement of BIOS and, to win, had to defeat at least one white incumbent or one white challenger endorsed by BIOS. Yet Rivas finished second, far ahead of one of the white incumbents endorsed by BIOS.  Early indications are that Rivas' supporters made effective use of cumulative voting. The Center's Texas community educator Joleen Garcia was a resource to those seeking to use cumulative voting in Amarillo.

Providing a good contrast, the college board at the same time had a traditional winner-take-all, at-large election for three seats with three white candidates and one Latino male. Some Latino leaders organized a "bullet vote" campaign, in which Latino voters were urged to only cast one vote for the Latino candidate instead of casting their additional two votes for white candidates. Nevertheless, the Latino candidate finished a poor fourth.

The 2004 elections

In 2004, cumulative voting was again hailed as a success. Professor David Rausch of West Texas A&M University conducted a study indicating that voters understood the system well, when measuring voter error rates. Racial minority representation has continued since the system's implementation, and now policymakers and advocacy groups are pushing for use of cumulative voting in additional elections in Amarillo.

Professor David Rausch's analysis of Amarillo's 2004 election results (.pdf  74 KB)
Amarillo Globe News coverage of the 2004 Amarillo cumulative voting elections [HERE]

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