Point-Counterpoint: Should a
cumulative voting system be adopted for city elections?
July 27, 2001
To The Right
To the Left
At-large elections work
By Virbil Van Camp
There has been a long-running dispute in Amarillo
about our system of at-large elections for school, hospital and city
Critics say that a tiny affluent area of the city has
a disproportionate share of elected officials. They also say that
the racial makeup is all white, and minorities are systematically
excluded from the process.
Election results are assumed to be tainted if the
desired quota of darker-skinned people are not proportionately
elected after the votes are counted. On the national scene, Jesse
Jackson or Louis Farrakhan will be in front of TV cameras claiming
discrimination and fraud even before Dan Rather projects the wrong
Where is it written that skin color should be the main
criterion determining whether an elected official can fairly
represent a certain constituency? We live in a legally color-blind
society - except that, by judicial decree, darker-skinned people are
more equal than those of white skin.
Some have pushed for a ward or precinct system similar
to our counties, where a commissioner represents a geographical
area. At one time, Amarillo was much more segregated along racial
lines than now. There were very distinct Hispanic and black
communities. This is changing rather fast.
When members of the liberal establishment failed to
achieve the political results at the polls that they deemed fair,
they set about tinkering with the process to change results.
Gerrymandered districts were struck down by the courts. The gimmick
du jour allows cumulative voting.
We have that system in place for the Amarillo
Independent School District's Board of Trustees. The stated
objective is to provide minorities a method of getting one of their
If people in an ethnic neighborhood concentrate all
their votes on one candidate, that candidate has a better chance of
winning than under the at-large system now in use.
After voting in the last school board election, I'm
confused about all the nuances and mechanics of the process.
However, the board is still overwhelmingly white.
Historically, blacks and Hispanics were excluded from
voting. Various processes were used, such as poll taxes and literacy
tests. With the advent of civil rights laws initiated by President
Lyndon Johnson, this has changed. What Martin Luther King Jr. and
his followers fought and died for is now taken for granted.
But minority voters are afflicted with the same apathy
rampant in the general population.
I believe we have the best city government in Texas. I
have lived here since 1945. I'm not aware of even a hint of scandal
involving past or present commissioners and mayors. Most have served
out of a sense of civic duty and have had successful careers.
Our city manager form of government keeps elected
officials from micro-managing petty details and forces them to
concentrate on broad policy.
The vast majority of city voters, by not voting, have
chosen to let our city officials be elected by about 10 percent of
those eligible to vote. If the results are unfair to minorities, so
Our baby boomer generation has not given up on the
fairness issue. Equal outcome has replaced equal opportunity as
They might never realize that "fair" can't be
legislated. The closest we can come is to ensure that all citizens'
rights are protected.
To constructively exercise those rights becomes the
responsibility of the individual citizen.
Virgil Van Camp can be contacted in care of the
Amarillo Globe-News, P.O. Box 2091, Amarillo, Texas 79166, or [email protected].
voting would help more
By William H. Seewald
Cumulative voting is one scheme in the range of
electoral techniques more broadly known as proportional
While some of the ideas might seem alien to the way we
generally elect candidates in winner-take-all contests, it's common
other places and has been tried at the local level in some of the
most conservative areas of the United States.
Think about it. In Amarillo, city commissioners are
all elected at-large - that is, citywide. But if you or I want to
run to be on the commission, we must decide which one of the
commissioners we want to challenge. This decision can have more to
do with a personal agenda or the designs of political parties than
the real preferences of voters.
How much more brilliant to have all those same people
run on the issues instead of against each other, and then let the
voters pick their top four choices from among the whole list. That
would be a purer at-large choice in the broadest sense.
The arguments for proportional voting remain
essentially the same whatever the level of the election, though some
schemes might be more appropriate than others depending on what the
election is for.
The courts are increasingly hostile to remedies like
gerrymandering districts to "pack" minority voters so one of their
own is electable. Indeed, those who remain committed to making good
on our American civic ideals must look to other remedies.
Cumulative or proportional voting makes minorities
more likely to have representation even when defined by a wide
variety of factors such as religion, economic position or gender.
Politicians can make at-large or single-member
districts, but they decide where they're going to put us voters. In
a truly open election, the voter affiliates with whatever group
deemed best. It's unlimited by geography, party or a system of
voting that stacks the deck. The whole issue of ward politics vs.
at-large becomes irrelevant. It would be a fluke that the majority
lost control of a commission under proportional voting.
It would be unlikely even in the case of cumulative
voting, when a voter can cast more than one vote for the same
person, though not more in total than any other voter.
But commissions elected this way do tend to represent
a broader cross section of the community. Winner-take-all elections
tilt the odds in favor of incumbents and the majority.
Proportional voting brings more voices to the table.
It pushes the political process toward consensus. The majority
inevitably will form the center and set policy, but it will be
informed by a broader viewpoint.
In a local winner-take-all election, often less than
10 percent of the electorate actually votes for a successful
candidate. That's exactly the sort of scenario that makes people
think their votes don't count. Even with low turnout, proportional
elections easily double the turnout.
Being a democrat with a small "d" demands more than
just showing up to vote and saying you believe in democracy.
It won't survive if people aren't committed both to
participation and to making it work.
William H. Seewald can be contacted in care of the
Amarillo Globe-News, P.O. Box 2091, Amarillo, Texas 79166, or