The Mobile Register

One man, 7 votes?
By Brendan Kirby
July 2, 2001

To see how Baldwin County voters might one day elect county commissioners, look north to Chilton County, where a controversial and experimental system has operated for more than a decade.

There are no political districts. There are no "places."

And a voter can vote for one candidate again and again and again - up to seven times in one election.

It's called "cumulative voting," a system in which voters get a number of votes equal to the number of offices up for election. A voter may choose to vote once for each of seven candidates, seven times for a single candidate or any combination in between.

After party primaries, a general election is held. Each candidate runs against all the others. The top vote-getting candidates win. That's it. There's no runoff unless there is a tie for seventh place.

With no districts, residents can contact any one of the winners, though they generally seek out the person they feel "owes" them for having gotten more than one of their votes.

Baldwin voters could wind up with cumulative voting in County Commission races if a federal judge agrees with plaintiffs in a voting-rights lawsuit set to go to trial Aug. 15 in Montgomery.

The idea has drawn near-unanimous condemnation from Baldwin's local leaders. But it might be one option for increasing the number of minority officeholders in the county, which saw all of its black elected representatives lose their offices last year.

In Chilton County, the system has been used for County Commission and school board races since 1 988 as part of a court settlement of a voting-rights lawsuit filed in the 1980s.

After four elections, opinions vary wildly among public officials in Chilton, a county with a population of 39,593 between Montgomery and Birmingham.

Opponents complain that the system is cumbersome, constitutionally questionable and - even after more than a decade - horribly confusing to voters.

To supporters, though, cumulative voting has worked exactly as advertised. They say it has given voices to sizable groups of voters who previously had been nearly powerless.

Since the new system took effect, Chilton voters have elected their first black candidates to the County Commission and school board and have split power nearly evenly between Democrats and Republicans in the previously Democratic stronghold. A bold experiment.

Few communities in the United States use cumulative voting, but the method dates back more than a century and appears to be increasing in use, according to political historians.

A bill introduced this year in the Alabama Legislature would have allowed municipalities to switch to cumulative voting, but its sponsor withdrew the measure.

Rob Richie, executive director of the Takoma Park, Md.-based think tank Center for Voting and Democracy, said some jurisdictions used cumulative voting as far back as the 1870s. Some small states used cumulative voting to elect congressional representatives, he said.

In recent years, cumulative voting has gained popularity as state and city governments have sought to settle lawsuits challenging the lack of minority representation. More than 50 communities in Texas use cumulative voting. In Alabama, a few municipalities also use the method and more than two dozen other governments use other forms of alternative election systems.

In 1985, John Dillard, who is black, sued Crenshaw County, claiming that the voting rules there were designed to dilute the voting strength of minorities. That suit was widened two years later to include 180 jurisdictions in Alabama. Many county commissions and school boards - as well as city councils - elected representatives at-large in numbered places.

Plaintiffs argued the method was designed to prevent blacks from getting elected by forcing head-to-head competitions between black and white candidates in jurisdictions where a majority of voters were white.

One defendant was Baldwin County, which was run by four commissioners elected at large and the probate judge. It was the same system in place in Chilton and most other counties throughout the state.

A federal judge ordered most counties to expand their commissions and to use single-member districts. That was the case in Baldwin, which increased from four commissioners to seven and removed the probate judge as the head of the government.

Seven districts were drawn, including a majority-black district that hugged the western edge of the county. In 1988, the district elected Samuel Jenkins Sr. as the county's first-ever black commissioner. The school board, which drew a similar majority-black district, got its first black member that same year.

Chilton County and a handful of city governments opted for alternative systems. Some went to limited voting, in which candidates run at-large but people have a number of votes that is less than the number of offices on the ballot.

Chilton settled on cumulative voting. Like Baldwin, its commission expanded from four to seven and dropped the probate judge as the head of the commission. With a black population of less than 11 percent, officials say it would be difficult or impossible to draw seven single-member districts that would include one where a majority of residents are black.

System called foolish

Cumulative voting's critics in Chilton include several county commissioners, the chairmen of both major political parties and a citizens group that is raising money to challenge the system in court.

"We've took a lot of jokes, because it is foolish," said Allen Wyatt, the commission chairman, who was elected to his second term last November. "I think there's other ways to ensure minority representation."

Republicans in Chilton County said the system has helped spark a GOP resurgence. In 1988, all four county commissioners were Democrats. Since the new system took effect, Republicans have gained in every election, and took control over the commission and school board for the first time in modern history last November, winning a 4-3 majority on both boards.

Republican Kent Lowrey, a first-time commissioner, said cumulative voting has helped his party by draining black votes away from white Democrats. Since most of the county's African-Americans use all seven of their votes for Bobby Agee, Lowrey believes, the remaining Democrats in the field have to scramble for support among the remainder of the electorate.

Agee, a funeral home director who became Chilton County's first black candidate to win election to the County Commission in 1988, has been re-elected three times.

"From a political standpoint, I think it's the best thing that's happened to the Republican Party in Chilton County in 50 years," he said. "Government-wise, I think it's the worst thing that's happened in that length of time."

Lowrey, 65, cites several drawbacks. First, it makes it easier for extremists to get elected, he said. A fringe candidate with strong backing from a small number of voters could win office even if his views are unpopular with the vast majority of voters. By eliminating districts, the system also denies each voter a single representative accountable to his or her specific area, he argued.

Lowrey, a contractor from Jemison in the northern part of the county, said his election strategy last year was to mine for votes in his home area. He worked the region exclusively, urging north county residents to use all of their votes for him.

Bill Popwell, who has led a three-year effort to raise money for a legal challenge to cumulative voting, said he expects to hire an attorney to file a lawsuit later this year. He said cumulative voting discriminates against white voters by giving minorities disproportionate influence over elections.

Besides, Popwell added, good black candidates do not need the special help. He said Agee, the black commissioner, receives support from white precincts and could win under any system.

Party activists, both Republican and Democratic, also said cumulative voting impedes the organizational efforts of the parties.

Candidates learned fairly quickly that they need to try to get voters to cast all of their votes for them. That pretty well ended any cooperation among candidates from the same party, said Mike Smith, the county GOP chairman.

Districts of the mind

Jim Blacksher, the attorney who helped negotiate the court consent decree that established cumulative voting in Chilton County, rejected arguments offered by opponents of the system.

Blacksher, who also represents Baldwin residents Joe Horace, Billy Smith and Willie Edwards in their suit, said cumulative voting has not confused voters. He accused the system's opponents of hiding behind concerns over courts usurping authority of state legislators.

"It is a veiled racial argument. They're playing the race card," he said. "It's classic stuff."

Richie, the director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, said the experience of cumulative voting in places it has been used has generally been that voters catch on faster than the politicians.

Supporters of cumulative voting point to what they say are its advantages:

Many different groups are able to elect somebody to represent them. That could mean a racial minority, women, rural voters or any other group that feels isolated and powerless.

Blocks of voters do not all have to live in the same area to make their voices heard. One factor that makes drawing a majority-minority district difficult in Chilton County is that the black population is too spread out. Recent Supreme Court decisions have cast doubt on the legality of creating oddly shaped districts that zigzag through a jurisdiction to tie black voters together.

Cumulative voting avoids the headaches and, often, the expensive legal battles associated with redistricting.

State and federal laws require that governments from Congress to city councils reconfigure their districts every 10 years after each census to ensure that all districts are as near to equal as is practically possible in population.

At-large cumulative voting discourages negative campaigning since candidates have many opponents rather than one.

Changes for Baldwin

Baldwin County struggled with racial politics throughout the 1990s. In 1988, the expanded commission produced the election of Jenkins, the first black person ever elected to the County Commission.

But Baldwin officials redrew that district in 1999 in an attempt to head off a lawsuit in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that race could not be the primary factor in drawing political boundaries. Last year, in a majority-white district for the first time, Jenkins lost his re-election bid.

Baldwin's black population, at about 10 percent, resembles Chilton's - too small and spread out to make a majority-black district.

Horace, Smith and Edwards, the three black Baldwin County residents who joined the Dillard case from the 1980s, want a federal judge to impose cumulative voting.

The trio faces four other Baldwin residents, who intervened in the suit in 1996. The intervenors argue that the judge overstepped his authority when he expanded the size of the County Commission. They want the commission returned to its original size set by the state Legislature.

"There are good reasons not to have seven," said Albert Jordan, a lawyer for the intervenors - Dale Eugene Brown, James Austin Jr., Alvin Lee Pitts and George R. Johnson. "The more you have, the easier it is to obscure accountability to the electorate."

In addition, Jordan said, fewer commissioners means fewer salaries for taxpayers to pay.

Jordan also contends there is no legal precedent for ordering cumulative voting and that the law does not provide for it.

The Baldwin County Commission, which is a defendant in the case, has adopted the plaintiffs' position on several key questions. The commissioners agree that the number of commissioners should be kept at seven, arguing that rapid population growth and the vast physical size of the county necessitate a bigger commission. County commissioners have tried unsuccessfully to convince the local legislative delegation to change the state law.

County officials, however, vigorously oppose a federal court's imposing cumulative voting.

One Baldwin resident who would like to see cumulative voting is James Williams, who became the county's first black school board member in 1988 but lost his re-election bid in a new majority-white district last year.

Williams said cumulative voting would allow all sides to be represented. The Stockton Democrat said he thinks a strong GOP tide, which resulted in a commission composed entirely of Republicans, probably had more to do with his defeat last year.

"But there was some race voting, I'm sure," he added.