Voting Reform That Works Is Transforming Texas
May 7, 2002
Considering the role that Florida's electoral mess
played in making him president, and considering his active
disinterest in reforming political processes to assure that the
Florida fiasco will never be repeated, George W. Bush is not widely
regarded as a pioneering proponent of moves to make American
democracy more fair and representative.
Yet, an obscure Texas law
that then-Governor Bush signed in 1995 is transforming the electoral
landscape in Texas for the better. In fact, a recent vote in
Amarillo suggests that it is breaking the grip of Bush's allies in
the business community that has for so long dominated Texas
The reform that Bush inked with little fanfare
seven years ago made it easier for local school districts across
Texas to create cumulative voting systems.
Traditionally in Texas,
school board members were elected using standard winner-take-all,
at-large systems where voters are limited to casting one vote for
each candidate. The system made it easy for majority racial or
ethnic groups in a district to dominate the balloting. Thus, school
districts with substantial minority populations continued to be
governed by all-white boards.
Under cumulative systems, voters are
allowed to cast as many votes as there are seats. They can
distribute the votes among various contenders or assign them all to
one candidate. This, as Harvard professor Lani Guinier has noted,
makes it possible for members of minority groups to focus their
voting on electing members of their own communities and bringing
diversity to elected boards.
Since 1995, groups seeking to increase
minority representation on local school boards in Texas have
regularly pressed Voting Rights Act challenges seeking to upset
winner-take-all, at-large systems. In a growing number of cases they
have, in settling their legal actions, opted for cumulative voting
as a vehicle to achieve better balance on boards. At least 57 Texas
communities have adopted cumulative voting systems, according to the
Maryland-based Center for Voting and Democracy. And there is growing
enthusiasm regarding the reform among voting rights activists with
the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, the League of United Latin
American Citizens and the National Association for the Advancement
of Colored People.
"Cumulative voting allows minority groups to
elect their preferred candidate in an at-large election system,"
said Nina Perales, staff attorney for the Mexican-American Legal
Defense and Educational Fund. "It does work. If voters understand
the system, it works very well."
In Amarillo, where a cumulative
voting system was adopted in 1999 in order to settle a Voting Rights
Act challenge, the reform does indeed seem to be working very well.
From the late 1970s to the late 1990s, no minority candidates were
elected to the Amarillo Independent School District board -- despite
the fact that close to 30 percent of the voting population, and 40
percent of the school-age population, is Hispanic or African
With the May, 2000, local school board election, Amarillo
became the largest U.S. jurisdiction currently utilizing cumulative
voting. And the system has worked precisely as local, state and
national voting rights activists had hoped. In 2000, voters elected
an African American and a Latina to the school board. And, last
week, in the second Amarillo school board election held under the
cumulative voting system, a second Latina candidate was elected --
bringing minority representation on the school board to a record
"The eyes of the minority voting rights community were
focused on Amarillo. This election was seen by many as a test of the
ability of cumulative voting to work for the minority community,"
says Joleen Garcia, a Center for Voting and Democracy staffer who
works in Texas to promote electoral alternatives. "For those who
work for better election systems and fair representation, this was
an important victory."
In a five-way race for three school board
seats, Janie Rivas was the sole minority candidate. A veteran
community activist, Rivas finished second in voting that ousted an
Anglo incumbent who was backed by Business In Our Schools (BIOS), a
powerful local political group financed as its name suggests by
business interests. According to political observers in Amarillo,
Rivas was the first school board candidate to be elected in many
years without a BIOS endorsement.
Rivas' election means that the
Amarillo Independent School District board is now made up of four
Anglo members, two Latinas and one black representative.
contrast to the dramatic progress in minority representation on the
school board achieved under the cumulative voting system came in
elections the same day for the local college board. Despite a big
push to elect a Latino candidate, the college board vote under the
old winner-take-all, at-large system produced three Anglo winners.
The evidence is mounting that real election reforms make a real
difference. So far, however, there is little evidence that George W.
Bush wants to make this Texas success story a national model.