Charleston Post and Courier


Charleston Gazette Post and Courier, Monday, March 5, 2001.

'Cumulative Voting' Would Enhance Fairness in Charleston County

By Rep. James E. Clyburn

CHARLESTON- The U.S. Justice Deparment's recent court challenge to at-large elections for Charleston County Council offers the perfect oppportunity to provide enlightened and innovative leadership in an area which cries out for leadership.

The current nine-member County Council has only one black representative, despite their 31 percent composition of the county's registered voters. Charleston County voters have previously rejected creating single-member districts for the council, and it may be of some surprise to them and some others that I am not writing in opposition to that rejection.

For almost 20 years now, I have been advocating alternative voting methods to at-large elections and single-member districts. I am a proponent of proportional voting. While not new to South Carolina, and unfamiliar to most current residents, proportional voting utilizes multimember-districts and does away with divisive winner-take-all elections.

There are three different forms of proportional voting. One of them, Preference Voting, allows voters to rank as many or as few candidates as they wish in order of preference, i.e. first, second, and third. Once a candidate receives enough votes to assure a victory or is mathematically eliminated, second preferences on the ballots are counted.

A second form is Limited Voting. This method gives voters fewer votes than the number of seats to be filled. For instance, if there are three seats open, each voter is allowed to vote for two or only one. Winning candidates are determined by a simple plurality. Versions of this method are currently used in Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; Hartford, Conn.; and many smaller jurisdictions around the United States.

My personal favorite is a third method, Cumulative Voting. Under this method, voters get as many votes as there are seats to fill, and they may distribute those votes among the candidates as he or she wishes. Looking at the sample ballot in the accompanying graphic, there are six candidates running for three seats.

In the first instance, the voter divided up the votes: one each for Jane Brown, Joe Green, and Bill Orange. In the second instance the voter divided the three votes, giving two to Jane Brown and one to Bill Orange. In the final instance, the voter gave all three votes to Jane Brown.

Cumulative voting was used in South Carolina from 1870-1880, when the practice was ended as a means to disenfranchise black voters. However, cumulative voting was just implemented in Amarillo, Texas, for school board elections as a settlement of a lawsuit similar to the one currently facing Charleston County. Its first test had historic results. Of the four seats available, the winnesr included the first African-American and first Hispanic woman ever elected to the board . Voter turnout also quadrupled from the previous election.

Increased voter participation is another tangible benefit of using proportional voting. The United States is the only major democracy in the world that still uses winner-take-all elections. And I sincerely believe it to be the primary cause for voter apathy. By giving all the power to a candidate who may only receive a plurality of the votes depresses voter participation and increases voter disenchantment.

Winner-take-all means candidates can get less than 40 percent of the vote and their supporters still get 100 percent of the representation. Proportional voting allows minority voters and parties to pool their votes and enhance their voices.

I am not a newcomer to the idea of proportional voting. I have openly advocated it since the early 1980s, and have recently co-sponsored legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to allow states to create multimember congressional districts.

The current lawsuit in Charleston County provides the perfect opportunity to test proportional voting's viability in South Carolina. In light of increased voter distrust of our election system, Charleston County can lead the way by implementing this innovative system.

It will not only settle the lawsuit without single-member districts but could very well ensure better participation and more effective representation for all its citizens.

James E. Clyburn represents South Carolina's Sixth District in the U.S. House of Representatives.