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Press Democrat

Santa Rosa vote plan: How it works elsewhere
By Tom Chorneau
June 11, 2002

An unconventional voting system proposed for Santa Rosa has increased representation of ethnic minorities in other cities, but nowhere has it accomplished what proponents here want most: broadening the geographic diversity of elected bodies.

Cumulative voting, a system that allows voters to cast more than one vote per candidate, has been recommended for use in Santa Rosa as a means of improving diversity on the City Council. The council is scheduled to consider the issue at its meeting tonight.

Officials in three of the most populous places in the country where the multivote system is used said it can be cumbersome and complex to introduce, but it's not necessarily expensive -- a key concern of Sonoma County officials.

At the same time, elections officials in Alabama and Texas say the system had no long-term impact on voter turnout, one of the benefits touted by proponents and some academics. They also say the system has the potential to confuse voters on Election Day.

It is clear, however, that cumulative voting, which never has been tried in California, allows minority groups to gather all their strength behind one candidate and improve their chances of winning a seat.

The system, invented during Civil War times and used in Illinois state races for 100 years until discontinued in 1980, gives voters the same number of votes as contested seats in an election. Thus, in a race for four seats, voters have up to four votes to use any way they like. They can put all four votes toward one candidate or spread them out.

Under Santa Rosa's existing election system, if four council seats are up for election, each voter may cast only one vote for each open seat.

Santa Rosa's concerns

The idea to implement cumulative voting here, which would require the city's charter to be changed and thus need the approval of voters citywide, is being driven by concerns that Santa Rosa's government is dominated by eastside residents and that the city's growing Latino community is not adequately represented in local politics.

Once in place elsewhere, cumulative voting has resulted in minority candidates winning seats. The first blacks were elected to the county commission of Chilton County, Ala., after cumulative voting came in 1988, as were the first Latino and black candidates in the Amarillo Independent School District in Texas after it began there in 1998.

But experts say the use of cumulative voting in the United States until now has been limited to solving racial or ethnic minority representation issues. Nowhere has it been used in an attempt to fix geographic imbalances.

Indeed, the multivote system in place in Amarillo, in Chilton County and in Peoria, Ill., are each the result of a settlement of voter-rights lawsuits.

Experts mixed on plan

Caleb Kleppner, spokesman for the Center for Voting Democracy in San Francisco and an advocate of cumulative voting, said the system would be successful in increasing geographical diversity and improving the political chances of candidates from west Santa Rosa.

"In the current system, a group has got to get at least 50 percent of the vote to be guaranteed a seat," he said. "Any reduction in that threshold will improve a group's chances. There's very little chance that you would have less geographic representation than you do now."

But Douglas Amy, author and professor of political science at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and a national expert on election systems, noted that in places where voters from the same neighborhoods are not unified behind a single issue, cumulative voting could result in any number of special-interest groups grabbing power.

"People might run on any number of issues and voters will make their choices in the same way," he said. "You might find that geographic interests are not the most important to voters."

Politics aside, Sonoma County election officials have said they could not implement cumulative voting without spending millions for new ballot-processing equipment.

But the costs of implementing the multivote system in Texas and Alabama were not prohibitive, officials said. In Randall County, which conducts elections for the Amarillo Independent School District -- a population of 150,000 -- the County Clerk's Office was able to use its existing election equipment at only a marginal increase in cost.

Alabama's Chilton County, population 40,000, has used cumulative voting to elect school board members and county commissioners, which are similar to California's county supervisors. Robert Martin, a county judge whose job includes overseeing elections, said his office was able to lease election equipment capable of handling multivote ballots for about the same cost as machines the county leased before the switch to cumulative elections.

Voting machines an issue

Sonoma County Clerk Eeve Lewis said last week she does not know whether the equipment used locally could handle multivote ballots. But Sonoma County uses an optical scanning machine similar to the one used in Randall County.

The problem with the scanning system, said Randall County Clerk Sue Bartolino, is that the machine cannot complete a final tally for each candidate. Her solution was to download a gross tally into a desktop computer and allow a spreadsheet to finalize the vote. Although cumbersome, the setup was approved by Texas state officials.

Martin said a big problem in Chilton County is voter confusion on Election Day. Even though voters have participated in cumulative voting since 1988, he said about 30 percent of the ballots are miscast and rejected. He said that in a recent election, there were 22 candidates running for seven open seats, creating a ballot sheet with 154 slots to choose from.

Bartolino said there was not widespread trouble with the ballot in Amarillo, but there was sufficient voter confusion to spur officials to study the issue.

Perhaps somewhat surprising to academics is the fact that voter turnout has not increased in either place where cumulative voting has been instituted. Martin said that in Chilton County, turnout remains about 35 percent for primary elections and 50 percent for general elections.

Texas state law requires separate election dates for schools, and thus turnout for Amarillo school board elections is usually about 3 percent. When Amarillo tested cumulative voting for the first time in 1998, voter turnout jumped to 12 percent, but officials say that spike was probably because of a hotly contested tax measure on the same ballot. They noted that the most recent school board election held just last month drew just 3 percent of voters.

Peter Ashcroft, a member of the Santa Rosa citizens panel that is recommending cumulative voting, said none of the issues raised by officials elsewhere has changed his mind.

"I'm still very much in favor of it," he said. "There's certainly unanswered questions as to how it can be implemented, but none of the issues raised elsewhere seem too dismaying to me. Cumulative voting is one system that I think will work here. It may not be the only tool, but it is a good tool."

News Researcher Michele Van Hoeck contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Tom Chorneau at 521-5214 or [email protected]

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