Los Angeles Times 

Voters Electing New Ways to Cast Ballots : 
From 'cumulative voting' to participating online, standard methods of choosing leaders are evolving. 

June 25, 2000

This spring James Allen became the first African American elected to the school board in Amarillo, Texas, finishing first in the field with 7,619 votes. 

But that didn't mean 7,619 people voted for him. 

Some people may have given Allen two votes. Some three. Some even four. 

And it was all legal. 

The ability of voters in Amarillo to divvy up their votes was the latest example of Americans' altering, sometimes radically, the ways they choose elected officials. 

U.S. senators, for example, were chosen by state legislatures, not the electorate, until the Constitution was amended in 1913. Women only got the vote seven years later. 

Secret ballots printed at government expense, something we take for granted, were only introduced in the United States in the late 1800s. Before that, political parties printed the ballots and pre-marked them, just to be helpful, of course. 

Internet an Option 

Now come efforts to vote via the Internet, to eliminate the polling booth and, as Amarillo demonstrated, to restructure the way ballots are cast. 

James Allen was elected May 6 to the board of the Amarillo Independent School District through "cumulative voting." 

With seven candidates seeking four seats, voters could cast ballots for four different candidates, split up their votes or give four to one person. In the largely African American neighborhood of North Heights, 321 ballots were cast, giving Allen 744 votes--meaning most people voted for him at least twice. 

"Cumulative voting is not hard once you get the basic premise," said Nina Perales, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. MALDEF sued the 29,000-student school district in 1998, alleging that for years minority voting strength had been persistently and unfairly diluted. 

Amarillo is 16% Latino and 6% black, but a minority had not been elected to the board since the 1970s. Some minorities had been appointed to fill unexpired terms, Perales said, but they were always defeated when they sought reelection. 

So MALDEF, on behalf of the League of United Latin American Citizens and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, tried to replace Amarillo's at-large voting system with single-member districts. 

For decades, creating single-member districts was a common legal remedy to empower minority communities. But after the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993 questioned a "bizarrely" drawn congressional district in North Carolina, advocacy groups had to avoid proposing districts so blatantly gerrymandered or had to propose other remedies. 

Fairness Is Goal 

That's where cumulative voting comes in. And that's why MALDEF, as a compromise, agreed to cumulative voting in Amarillo. 

Cumulative voting has taken hold mostly in Texas, with 50 jurisdictions, mainly school districts, using the system, said Robert Richie, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington. Traditional voting, he said, amounts to "one person, one vote, no choice." 

For the moment, Amarillo is the largest jurisdiction in the country to use cumulative voting. But for 110 years, that's how Illinois residents elected their state House of Representatives. That system had a further twist: Each district had three representatives and, as in Amarillo, voters could divide their votes in various combinations, even giving two candidates 1 1/2 votes each. 

Illinois voters junked the system in 1980, partly to save money, partly in response to a slogan encouraging them to "fire 59 lousy politicians with one shot." The result: The house shrank from 177 seats to 118 and simple majority voting became the rule. 

But now a group called the Midwest Democracy Center is spearheading a drive to restore the system, arguing that it provides balance because a small group--say, Republicans in a largely Democratic area--could still elect one of three representatives in a district. 

Other voting innovations are driven not by a call for equity but by the desire for convenience and saving money. 

Oregon in November will become the first state to conduct a presidential election entirely with mail-in ballots. Voters there agreed two years ago to do away with traditional polling booths in all elections and, unlike voters elsewhere who must request an absentee ballot before each election, Oregon residents register just once to continually receive ballots at home. 

Richie of the Center for Voting and Democracy is "cautiously supportive" of mail-in voting but worries about the potential for fraud. He has similar concerns about Internet voting, which was used last March in Arizona's Democratic primary--the first binding election in the country to accept votes online. 

Arizona Democrats could cast Internet ballots over four days or go to a polling place March 11, where they could vote with paper ballots or by computer. Of 85,970 ballots cast, 35,768 were filed online. 

Democrats called the primary a success, noting that it dwarfed the paltry turnout four years earlier of just 12,800 voters. It's an impressive jump, but that year President Clinton was running unopposed. 

Still, voters did turn out even though Vice President Al Gore's challenger, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, dropped out of the race March 9, while Arizona's electronic primary was in process. 

But Arizona's online voting, like any new computer endeavor, had its share of glitches. Some voters with less than state-of-the-art equipment could not vote or were told they already had. Others lost PIN numbers they had received earlier. Some found the voting process confusing. 

California hopes to avoid such problems as it begins experimenting with Internet voting this November. In what Alfie Charles, spokesman for the secretary of state's office, calls a shadow election, voters in two or three counties will cast their official ballots on paper but then can test the process on computer. 

Charles said officials have not decided which counties will participate in the test. The shadow election would be the first step in trying to bring Internet voting statewide. There is no target date on when to make that happen. 

The key to employing technology, however, will be to protect the integrity of the election, a recurring concern with any innovation at the ballot box. 

"Our overall goal has been, from the outset, 100% participation and zero fraud," said California Secretary of State Bill Jones. "New technology will have to go toward that same goal." 
* * * 
[The article included a graphic showing how cumulative voting works. The text was:] 

One Man, Four Votes 
Each voter has a number of votes equal to the number of positions up for election. If there are four positions, each voter can cast up to four votes. Voters may cast their votes in any combination for the candidate or candidates of their choice. The top four vote-getters will be elected.