Effect of Preference Voting on Asian American Candidates

Tito Sinha

Preference Voting for 32 School Districts
        On May 4, 1993, New York City residents cast their ballots for Community School Board elections. The city's school board elections use preference voting (also called single transferable vote) to elect 32 school boards of nine members each in at-large elections.
         Preference voting (PV) is a form of proportional representation where voters list candidates on their ballot in order of preference, with their ballot going to the highest-ranked candidate who can be helped by their vote. Candidates win by obtaining a certain "threshold," which is roughly equal to one-ninth of the electorate -- winning candidates thus represent a "constituency" about the size of what a single-member district would be if that system were used.
        In the vote count, "surplus" ballots are transferred both from winning candidates who obtain this threshold (surplus ballots being those beyond the threshold) and from losing candidates who have the least number of votes among remaining candidates. These ballots are transferred according to how voters rank their preferences, the process continuing until the nine candidates have reached the threshold or only nine candidates remain.

Preference Voting's Impact on Asian Americans
        The 1993 Community School Board elections in New York were significantly different from past elections for two reasons: a larger number of candidates ran and voter turnout increased dramatically. A major impetus for this increased interest was the fierce debate over the "Children of the Rainbow" curriculum, which prescribed multi-cultural educational at the elementary school level. Competing coalitions formed to endorse a slate of candidates who would support their position.
        As Asian Americans are under-represented in New York City's school boards -- and all other of the city's elected bodies -- the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), a New York City-based civil rights organization, decided to study how the use of preference voting affected Asian American candidates and voters in the 1993 elections. Overall, seven of the eleven candidates identified as Asian American won seats. AALDEF was most interested in those candidates who ran for community school boards in districts with a concentration of Asian American residents. The study focused on two such districts in Queens, Districts 24 and 25.

Two Asian Americans Elected in District 24
        District 24 has an Asian American voting age population of 13%. The Asian American candidates in District 24 were Louisa Chan and Margaret Pan-Loo, both Chinese Americans, and Daok Lee Pak, a Korean American. Chan ran on a slate with three non-Asians and eventually won with the transfer of ballots from the other Asian candidates and from other candidates on her slate. The two other Asian candidates running in the district -- Margaret Pan-Loo and Daok Lee Pak -- were not elected.
        According to the tallies of first choices from the Board of Elections, Chan, Pak and Pan-Loo each received comparable amounts of first-choice votes after the first count: Chan received 634, Pak 613 and Pan-Loo 628. Yet only Chan was able to accumulate enough votes -- the winning threshold was 1,662 -- through subsequent transfer ballots in order to win. Unlike Pak and Pan-Loo, Chan benefitted from ballots transferred from other non-Asian candidates on her slate after those candidates had been defeated.
        Even though Chan ran on another slate, she was the next-choice candidate on many of Pak's and Pan-Loo's ballots when they were defeated. Pak and Pan-Loo ran together on the same slate -- on Pak's slate, they were the only candidates. Consequently, when Pak was defeated in the 13th round of ballot transfers, Pan-Loo received 127 of Pak's 646 ballots. But Chan also benefitted by receiving 128 of Pak's votes. The fact that Chan ran on a separate slate from both Pak and pan-Loo, yet received as many second-choice votes as Pan-Loo among Pak's 646 votes demonstrates that Pak's supporters did not vote only according to the slates advertised by the candidates.
        Similarly, when Pan-Loo was defeated in the 17th round and her votes were distributed, Chan received more of her transfer ballots than any other candidate. Thus, despite differences of ethnic identity and slate affiliation among the Asian American candidates, a considerable segment of voters who selected one Asian candidate as their first choice chose the other Asian candidates as their second and third choices.
        Asian candidates also received votes from non-Asian candidates who were not on their slate, but shared similar ideological positions. For example, Chan received a significant number of votes from Patricia Hayes, who was not on her slate, but also supported the "Children of the Rainbow" curriculum. When Hayes was defeated in the 14th round, Chan was the highest recipient of Hayes' 664 ballots.

District 25: Asian American Winners and Losers
        In District 25, Asian American voting age population was 12%, and the Asian American candidates were Pauline Chu, a Chinese American and Han Young Lee, a Korean American. Entering this election, both Chu and Lee had served two terms, yet Chu was re-elected and Lee defeated in the last round of ballot transfers.
        The results from District 25 indicate a pattern of voting for Asian American candidates similar to the results from District 24. In District 25, Chu was able to accumulate enough first-choice ballots to meet the threshold necessary to win before there were any transfers from defeated candidates. Han Young Lee received 74 of her 323 surplus ballots -- more than any other candidate -- even though she was not the second-choice candidate on Chu's slate.
        The District 25 results demonstrate that, as in District 24, Asian American candidates were the primary recipients of ballots transferred from other Asian American candidates, which indicates that there is a solid voter base that prefers to elect Asian Americans over other candidates. It is highly likely that voters with these preferences are Asian Americans.
        One reason for Lee's inability to make the winning threshold in 1993 was the greater number of candidates running and the increased voter turnout generated by the "Children of the Rainbow" curriculum. The greater number of candidates resulted in a higher winning threshold; whereas Lee was able to win in previous years with 500 or 600 votes, in 1993 she needed 1,373. As a result, the role of transfer ballots became more critical since they could have elevated Lee's vote total to the threshold.
        According to Lee, there were more Korean voters in the 1993 election, which should have helped her. But the combination of a larger threshold and the
support of conservative candidates by Korean Christians and Korean conservatives may have diluted Lee's support from this voter base.

Key Lesson: Reaching Beyond Core Constituency
        The impact of the PV system in electing Asian Americans candidates in District 25 was critically different than in District 24. The PV system clearly facilitated the election of Louisa Chan in District 24. She won because a good portion of ballots of the other Asian candidates transferred to her. In the more conventional winner-take-all system of voting, the vote of those preferring Asian American candidates would have been split among the three Asian candidates and likely been "wasted."
        While working more closely with other Asian American candidates can help increase the number of transfer ballots Asian American candidates receive from each other as well as solidify a critical base of Asian American voters, the results from Districts 24 and 25 show that the transferred ballots Asian American candidates receive from other Asian American candidates are by themselves not always enough to make the winning threshold. In District 25, even if Lee had received all of Chu's 323 transfer ballots, she still would have fallen 153 votes short of the threshold. In District 24, working with non-Asian candidates enabled Chan to receive the necessary transfer ballots to win.
        Asian Americans need to better anticipate how critical election issues such as the debate over the "Children of the Rainbow Curriculum" will affect voter turnout and, in particular, the pattern of Asian American voting. If the current system is maintained, Asian American candidates who do not have voter bases large enough to be elected on the first count need to build coalitions with each other and non-Asian candidates so that they will increase their opportunities for receiving the transfer ballots needed to win.

        Tito Sinha is a staff member of the voting rights project of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. For more information, contact AALDEF at (212) 966-5932.

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