District is in vanguard of reform

By William H. Seewald
Published July 5th 2002
The May election for Amarillo Independent School District trustees saw proportional voting continue to diversify the pool of electable community members as well as reaffirm support for trustees with long-term service their community apparently values.

When the proportional voting system was inaugurated in 2000, we became the largest political jurisdiction in the country using this electoral method. The reforms certainly seem to be succeeding at this point.

The old "winner-take-all," at-large rules produced no successful nonwhite candidate for almost two decades, even though more than 40 percent of the student-age population and more than 20 percent of the voting-age population in Amarillo is nonwhite.

In the six elections before the 2000 change, eight times minority candidates unsuccessfully sought a place on the board. Elijah Demerson, Carl Henderson, Dave Contreras, Joe Peterson, Matthew Martinez, Hugo Antonio Medina, and Jose (Joe) Ruiz all lost to white opponents at least once.

As the re-election of long-term trustee Jack Thompson demonstrates, it isn't just about giving minorities a shot at participation either. He drew the most votes, clearly benefiting from service appreciated by his community and perhaps rewarded by a constituency of educators who value a voice on the board as well.

Janie Rivas' election, which adds another woman to the board, also represents one of the common effects of cumulative voting. It generally tends to promote more women into office.

Her election also provided contrast to the Amarillo College Board of Regents election, in which the at-large system produced only Anglo victors and made Antonio Renteria the single unsuccessful candidate.

The surge in turnout in the 2000 board elections reverted to the traditionally lighter numbers this year. But those who do vote are still entitled to the better cut of the deck, and our deeply alienated electorate isn't going to be lured back to the polls in one electoral cycle.

Even though the 1998 LULAC lawsuit sought single-member districts, there might be more to say for the proportional system. It's capable of uniting like-minded members of the electorate, irrespective of where they live.

Not all of the arguments made by those opposed to single-member districts are simply justification for the status quo either.

Districts that are gerrymandered to produce a safe seat for a particular group always tend to leave members of the same constituency marooned in other districts with no hope of electing anyone. Where we are a less segregated society, that is a real issue that proportional voting successfully addresses without having to go through all the machinations of redistricting.

The United States is among a diminishing number of democratic nations that don't employ some kind of proportional (or modified proportional) voting to elect one house of their legislatures.

If the rest of the country were willing to embark on the kinds of progressive reforms being tried right here in Amarillo, we could rid ourselves of some of the endless redistricting dramas while assuring that the playing field can be leveled for everyone.