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Amarillo Globe-News

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 just fine

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 offices.

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 winner.

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 own elected.

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 be it.

Our baby boomer generation has not given up on the fairness issue. Equal outcome has replaced equal opportunity as their goal.

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].

Proportional voting would help more

By William H. Seewald

Cumulative voting is one scheme in the range of electoral techniques more broadly known as proportional representation.

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 [email protected].

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