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