New Means for Political Empowerment in the Asian Pacific American Community

By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
Published March 1st 2001 in Asian American Policy Review

In recent years, alternative voting systems have advanced from being "controversial" to credible options for political empowerment of racial minority communities. On their own merits, and as a strategic response to recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings on voting rights and redistricting, proportional and semi-proportional voting methods like choice voting, cumulative voting and limited voting are increasingly used and recognized as a means to increase minority representation in local, state and even federal elections. The logic of proportional and semi-proportional voting systems for minority representation is simply too comp elling to be ignored. Indeed, alternative voting systems may have special utility for the Asian Pacific American community, which often finds itself dispersed over a geographic area and not concentrated enough to benefit from the drawing of majority-minority districts. In fact, in Los Angeles, New York City and San Francisco, three major cities with the highest populations of Asian Pacific Americans, the traditional voting rights strategy of drawing majority-minority districts has utterly failed APAs, as APAs currently hold only one out of a total of 77 city council seats elected by single-seat districts in these three cities. But evidence from New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco show that representation for Asian Pacific Americans would have a much higher chance of success using proportional and semi-proportional voting systems. This article will examine the electoral prospects for APAs using these alternative voting systems, and explore strategies to seek their adoption.

New Means for Political Empowerment in the Asian Pacific American Community

By Steven Hill and Robert Richie

In the three years since Bill Lann Lee became acting head of the Civil Rights division of the Department of Justice, proportional and semi-proportional voting systems have advanced from being "controversial" to credible alternatives for political empowerment. On their own merits, and as a strategic response to Supreme Court rulings on voting rights and redistricting, alternative voting methods like choice voting, limited voting and cumulative voting are increasingly used and recognized as a means to increase minority representation in local, state and even federal elections.1

Under Mr. Lee, the Voting Section of the Civil Rights division pre-cleared use of proportional voting systems in numerous jurisdictions. Most recently, the Justice Department pre-cleared the use of cumulative voting for school board elections in Amarillo, Texas, a city of more than 150,000 people (more than 50 jurisdictions in Texas now use cumulative voting, with the number steadily growing).2 In 1999, the Department of Justice (DOJ) wrote an amicus brief backing a federal judge's order of cumulative voting for elections to the city council and park board in Chicago Heights, IL. In September 1999, a representative of the DOJís Civil Rights division testified in favor of a bill in Congress that would allow states to use proportional and semi-proportional systems to elect their congressional representatives. After hearing persuasive evidence from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), the DOJ denied pre-clearance to New York City after the state legislature sought to replace choice voting, a fully proportional voting system, with a less proportional system for electing the city's local school boards.3 In its denial, the DOJ noted that the school boards had a significantly higher percentage of all racial minorities than any other legislative body in the city and were the only level of election where Asian Pacific Americans have had electoral success in New York. All in all, this has been a remarkable turnaround for alternative voting systems, which came under attack during the nomination proceedings of Lani Guinier for the position that Bill Lann Lee eventually assumed.4

The logic of proportional and semi-proportional voting systems for minority representation is too compelling to be held down for long, particularly in the wake of recent court rulings striking down majority-minority districts5 -- the so-called Shaw rulings.6 Indeed, alternative voting systems may have special utility for the Asian Pacific American community which often finds itself dispersed over a geographic area and therefore not concentrated enough to benefit from the drawing of majority-minority districts.7 In fact, in Los Angeles, New York City and San Francisco, three major cities with the highest populations of Asian Pacific Americans, the traditional voting rights strategy of drawing majority-minority districts has utterly failed APAs, as APAs currently hold only one out of a total of 77 city council seats elected by single-seat districts in these three cities. Thus, this article will examine the electoral prospects for APAs using a different strategy than single-seat districts -- namely, multi-seat districts elected by proportional and semi-proportional voting systems.

APA Electoral Success in New York City School Board Elections

The principle behind a "proportional" system is simple: that any grouping of like-minded voters should win legislative seats in proportion to its share of the popular vote (see appendix 1 explaining more detail about various proportional and semi-proportional systems). Whereas our current winner-take-all principle awards 100% of the representation to a 50.1% majority, a proportional system allows voters in a minority to win a fair share of representation.8 For example, five one-seat districts could be combined into a single five-seat district. If APA voters comprise 20% of the vote in this five seat district, they can elect at least one of the five seats -- even if voting was polarized entirely along racial lines -- rather than be shut out as they would be in a traditional at-large election, or in a district-based system where APAs are geographically dispersed.9

New York City provides a good example for comparing the differing impact that proportional representation voting systems and geographic-based district elections can have on Asian Pacific American electoral success. When it came time in 1991 to draw the electoral district map for New York's newly expanded city council, it was possible to create council districts that represented the interests of African Americans, Caribbean-born blacks, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and all sorts of white subgroups, ranging from ethnic whites to Hasidim, the gay community of Greenwich Village, conservative Republicans on Staten Island and limousine liberals on the Upper West Side. With Asian Pacific Americans making up seven percent of New York's population, three seats drawn for APAs on New York City's 51-seat city council might have seemed plausible, or at least one seat corresponding with the 2.3% Asian Pacific American share of registered voters in 1993. But there was no single geographic concentration of Asian Pacific American voters in New York City large enough to form a majority APA district. Many Asian Pacific Americans live in APA communities -- in Chinatown or in parts of Queens -- but those neighborhoods were not linked to one another in a way that could create compact electoral districts.10

The only elections in New York City where Asian Pacific Americans achieve electoral success are the 32 local school boards. Those positions are elected by a multi-seat proportional voting system called choice voting.11 After the DOJ denied a change to a plan that would have more than tripled the percentage of voter support necessary to win a seat, the proportional system of choice voting was retained for the May 1999 elections. Of 21 Asian Pacific American Pacific American candidates who ran, 15 were successful, winning seats in 9 of the 32 boards and winning 5% of school board seats overall.12

The rapidly increasing participation and success of Asian Pacific American candidates in the New York Community School Board elections provides an excellent example of how proportional systems -- and choice voting in particular -- serve to bring new voices and fresh faces into New York's elections and legislative bodies. Asian Pacific Americans have had near-continuous representation on the boards since 1975, even as no Asian Pacific Americans have won any other electoral office in the state or city. But after 1986, participation and electoral success took a dramatic upward swing. The number of Asian Pacific American winners doubled to four in 1989, then rose to seven in 1993 (out of 11 APA candidates), to 11 winners (out of 15) in 1996 and to 15 (out of 21) in 1999 (see chart in appendix 2).13

Choice voting made these successes possible even though Asian Pacific Americans comprise less than 20% of the adult population in every school district. That's because with nine seats on each school board, using a proportional system like choice voting means that it only requires about 10% of the vote to win one seat, 20% to win two and so on.14 Also, choice voting uses what is known as a "transferable ballot," whereby voters rank candidates, 1,2,3, etc. If a voter's first choice doesn't win, their vote transfers to their second choice. These transferable ballots are extremely valuable, since they promote coalition building, prevent voters from "splitting" their vote among similar candidates (like competing APAs) or "wasting" their vote on losing candidates, and allow voters to choose the candidates they really like, instead of the ìlesser of two evils." These qualities promote participation and engagement -- spurring APAs to run even where they comprised less than 10% of the population, and to run enough candidates to win three of nine seats in two districts. Choice voting has provided a similar "gateway" for other newly organized communities in the City, including, in recent years, immigrant communities from Russia and the Dominican Republic.

Use of choice voting for New York's city council elections, instead of the current 51 single-member districts system, almost certainly would lead to Asian Pacific American victories and an increased number of APA candidates. Voter registration data suggests that Asian Pacific Americans would win at least two seats in the 2001 city council elections if choice voting were used in each of the city's five boroughs. Even where Asian Pacific American candidates were not successful, their decision to run -- which would likely happen in every borough in the city if choice voting were adopted -- would help the Asian Pacific American community define and articulate its interests, raise visibility, and find allies in the non-Asian Pacific American community.

Proportional Systems In Practice

Here are a few examples of other localities where proportional and semi-proportional voting systems are making a difference.
  • In the Spring of 2000, the Amarillo Independent School District in Texas, representing a population of nearly 200,000 people, adopted cumulative voting. While cumulative voting does not have all the desirable qualities of choice voting (like ranked ballots), it does lower the threshold of support necessary to win as much as choice voting. Blacks and Latinos in Amarillo together make up a quarter of the city's population, but no black or Latino candidate had won a seat on the school board in decades. Instituted to settle a voting rights lawsuit involving MALDEF, LULAC and the NAACP , cumulative voting had an immediate impact. Both a black candidate and Latino candidate won seats with strong support in their respective communities; voter turnout increased more than three times over the most recent school board election; and all parties in the voting rights settlement expressed satisfaction with the new system. More than 50 Texas jurisdictions now have adopted cumulative voting in the 1990s alone. In 1995, Texas governor George W. Bush signed legislation that allows school districts to adopt cumulative voting and limited voting.
  • Cumulative voting and limited voting also have been used in nearly two dozen localities in Alabama for a decade, as well as localities in Alamogordo, New Mexico and Sisseton, South Dakota.15 Studies by various political scientists of the elections in Alabama demonstrate that they have boosted turnout and increased black representation as much or more as would have occurred if single-seat districts had instead been used.16 Another study by political scientist Jerome Gray found that more women were elected as well.17
  • Black candidate Bobby Agee, in 1988, was the highest vote-getter in the first elections using cumulative voting for a seven-seat commission in Chilton County, AL even though blacks comprised barely 10% of the population and even though he was outspent by more than 20-1 by the highest-spending candidate. Most of his supporters, overwhelmingly black, took advantage of their opportunity to cast (or "cumulate") all seven of their votes for him rather than spread their votes among other candidates. The first black commissioner in Chilton County's history, Agee has twice been re-elected and has been selected by his white colleagues to be chair of the commission.18
  • Peoria, IL the quintessential city of "middle America," uses cumulative voting for its city council elections. Blacks make up only 20% of the city's population, but black candidates have won in all three elections for the five seats in which cumulative voting has been used since a voting voting rights settlement in 1988. In 1998, a federal judge imposed cumulative voting in another Illinois voting rights case. Judge David Coar, who presided over the Illinois congressional redistricting case in which majority-minority districts in Chicago were upheld, ordered that Chicago Heights, IL adopt cumulative voting to elect its city council and park board.19 The order has been appealed, but the fact that cumulative voting is allowed by state law and had a very respectable history in the state increases the chances of the order being upheld.20
A Case Study: Los Angeles City Council Elections

The city of Los Angeles is a textbook example of a situation where geographic dispersal of the Asian Pacific American vote prevents APAs from achieving the type of electoral success they have enjoyed in the New York City community school board elections, or have been achieved by minorities in Amarillo, Peoria, Alabama, Texas and elsewhere. Los Angeles also illustrates nicely how a proportional system in multi-seat districts would allow the Asian Pacific American vote to become electorally competitive.

The city of Los Angeles has 15 city council districts, each electing one councilor representing over 232,000 people -- nearly half the size of a congressional district. Asian Pacific Americans comprise about 10 percent of the voting age population of Los Angeles, and no more than 19 percent of the voting age population (1990 census data) in any one city council district. In most districts, APAs comprise far less than 19 percent. Not surprisingly, Los Angeles City Council has no elected Asian Pacific Americans, despite a significant increase in the APA population since the 1990 census. Latinos comprise 35% of the voting age population according to 1990 census data, and Latinos hold three seats on the city council. African-Americans are 13 percent of the city's voting age population (1990 census data), but are highly concentrated geographically and also have three (20%) city council seats. Whites are, not surprisingly, over-represented, holding 9 seats (60%) with only 42% of the voting age population.21

The current 15 single-seat districts plan for Los Angeles' city council clearly is a barrier to political representation for Asian Pacific Americans. But, as the examples below illustrate, the electoral possibilities for APA voters are far less bleak when using multi-seat districts and a proportional voting system. In fact, in two scenarios, APAs actually reach a threshold of electoral viability and competitiveness.

Three seat districts in Los Angeles For instance, if we combine three single-seat city council districts into one three-seat district using a proportional representation system like choice voting, any cohesive voting constituency greater than 25 percent can elect a candidate.2 Smaller constituencies can elect a candidate by forming coalitions with other similar constituencies. Accordingly, if we combine some conglomeration of three contiguous city council districts with the highest APA populations, we find that the Asian Pacific American vote creeps closer toward the victory threshold of 25 percent. For instance, combining city council districts #1, #13 and #14, we arrive at the following ethnic composition:

Asian Pacific Americans 15 percent
Latinos 64 percent 
African Americans 3 percent
White 17 percent 

Note that, comparted to single-seat districts, in this three-seat district the Asian Pacific American vote is on a relative par with the white vote in terms of reaching the victory threshold of 25%. With lower voter turnout in the Asian Pacific American community, it still would be a challenge for APAs to elect a seat, but it is more possible than under a single-member district plan. And APAs would form a powerful "influence vote" for successful candidates to court.

Using other combinations of three-seat districts ñ for instance, combining districts #1, 4 and 13, or districts #4, 10 and 13 or districts # 10, 13 and 14 ñ would lead to similar results. Latinos and whites generally have the best shot at winning the three seats, with sometimes the third seat being very competitive for Asian Pacific Americans, as well as for Latinos and African Americans. Whichever constituency could mobilize their voters and build successful electoral coalitions would win the seat. In other words, while APAs numbers would still fall short of the victory threshold of 25%, they would have a fighting chance to win in this three seat district and would certainly be influential -- particularly compared to the current 15 single seat district scheme.

Five seat districts in Los Angeles Even more interesting possibilities arise for APA voters in Los Angeles if the 15 city council districts are combined into three five-seat districts. Under such a scheme, the APA community's chances of winning a seat on the Los Angeles City Council improve dramatically. A five-seat district would have a victory threshold of just under 17 percent of the vote.23 Combining city council districts #1, #4, #10, #13 and #14, the overall ethnic composition becomes:

Asian Pacific Americans 15 percent
Latinos 51 percent 
African Americans 10 percent
White 23 percent 

In this scenario, the Asian Pacific American vote has almost reached the victory threshold. Needing some 17 percent of the vote to win a seat means that Latino voters should win two or three seats, and the white voters should win one or two seats. That leaves one seat still to be filled, and the Asian Pacific American vote is in its best position yet to fill that seat. This would be a very competitive district for APAs, facilitating mobilization of APA candidates, voters and resources.

These simulations are calculated using voting age population based on 1990 census data. Most experts agree that the Asian Pacific American population has increased significantly relative to other populations in Los Angeles, especially compared to whites and African-Americans. Thus, it is likely that the immediate chances of Asian Pacific American electoral success will be even better in a multi-seat proportional voting scheme than estimated here. Also, these simulations assume that APAs vote in blocs or tend to support one particular candidate. While such a generalization is never absolutely true, and perhaps less true for APA's than for Latinos and African-American, racially polarized voting is certainly an on-the-ground reality that has contributed to the ability of APAs to compete electorally in New York City school board elections. Still, intra-ethnic competition must be factored into any estimates of electoral viability.

Case Study Number Two: San Francisco Elections for County Board of Supervisors

For the 2000 county elections, San Francisco switched to an 11 single-seat district system from an at-large plurality system electing 11 seats to the Board of Supervisors. During these elections, APAs suffered a dramatic decline in representation, from three seats to one.24 While APAs constitute approximately 30 percent (1990 Census data) of the city's population, they now have only nine percent of the representation due to geographic dispersion of the APA population and the fact that the Chinatown district, drawn as a majority-minority Asian district (55 percent APA, 1990 Census), actually elected a white liberal, not an Asian. The lone APA supervisor, an incumbent, instead was elected from the Asian-leaning Sunset district (46% APA).

If we combine three single-seat districts together in San Francisco into one three-seat district (as we did in the Los Angeles analysis above) with a 25 percent victory threshold, we see a much different story. For instance, combining supervisorial districts 1, 4 and 7 we discover that APAs comprise about 40 percent of that three-seat district area and whites about 49 percent. If we combine supervisorial districts 3, 6, and 10 we find that APAs comprise about 37 percent of this multi-seat district, with whites at 28 percent, African-Americans at 18 percent and Latinos at 11 percent. In both of these three-seat districts APAs would elect at least one seat per district, possibly two, for a total of 2-4 seats. Combining districts 8, 9 and 11 produces a three-seat district with an APA population of 21%, another competitive district for APAs possibly to win one seat, or certainly to be influential. Thus, proportional representation likely would significantly boost APA electoral success in San Francisco, just like it would in Los Angeles and New York City.

Addressing concerns about proportional and semi-proportional systems

In this section, we will address a few of the more common questions and concerns raised about proportional and semi-proportional voting systems.

Wouldn't larger districts make it more expensive and therefore more difficult for minority candidates to run? Under proportional and semi-proportional systems, minorities have been able to win their fair share of representation in numerous elections, even when outspent. They are able to do this because, with proportional systems, successful candidates need a smaller percentage of votes to win. Bobby Agee finished first in his Chilton County election, even though he was greatly outspent, by asking supporters to 'cumulateî'all their votes for him. Recent studies by our Center for Voting and Democracy and Democracy South found that in North Carolina and Vermont, both of which use a mix of one-seat districts and multi-seat districts, candidates actually have spent less money in the bigger, multi-seat district elections than in the one-seat districts.25 There are two reasons for this apparent paradox: candidates from one party can pool some of their expenses (activities designed to get out the vote, mailings, some advertisements, etc.); and it may be harder to pursue negative campaigning when there are several viable candidates on the ballot. The head-to-head combat of single-member districts appears to escalate the need for campaign spending.

Won't proportional voting systems be too confusing for voters? Exit polls taken in Texas and elsewhere have demonstrated that voters understand the voting rules of alternative systems like cumulative voting.26 Proportional systems are used in many American elections and in most other well-established democracies around the world. Voters in these elections have no trouble using them -- as evidenced by the higher voter turnout rates seen in most nations that use proportional systems. Some proportional systems are very simple to describe; others sound more complicated when first described, but experience shows that voters quickly grasp and learn the new rules. Educational campaigns instructing voters how to vote can also aid with the transition.

Won't these systems undercut neighborhood representation? No, because with proportional and semi-proportional systems, you need a smaller percentage of votes to win, allowing candidates to target their campaigning to certain parts of the city, if they wish. In Cambridge, MA, where choice voting is used to elect their city council, 5 out of 9 winning candidates typically have a core base of support in specific neighborhoods. Most neighborhoods consistently elect a representative from their area, as geography often is a factor in how some people vote. In Japan, local elections use limited voting for most city elections, and neighborhoods are also quite well represented, as neighborhood associations are often the most significant political players at that level of election.

Does advocacy of proportional representation undercut voting rights strategies using single-seat districts? No, because proportional and semi-proportional systems clearly can co-exist with single-member districts as voting rights remedies. Some cities like Peoria combine these approaches (districts with cumulative voting) in the same election. In states like Texas, North Carolina and Alabama, where many jurisdictions have adopted limited voting or cumulative voting, other localities have moved to single-seat districts. At the very least, proportional systems are a sensible back-up option when single-seat districts cannot be drawn due to geographic dispersion of the minority constituency, or due to judicial or legislative opposition.

Reapportionment and Redistricting The rising interest in alternative voting systems obviously is not occurring in a vacuum. Voting Rights Act provisions on redistricting have divided and preoccupied the Supreme Court more than any other issue the past ten years. The Court has heard arguments on cases involving voting rights and redistricting each term since its Shaw v. Reno ruling in 1993, often producing bitterly contested 5-4 rulings that have had the general -- if still poorly defined -- impact of limiting to what degree states can use race in drawing legislative district lines. In a bid to make some lemonades out of the Supreme Court's lemons, some long-time voting rights experts have reluctantly outlined the rationalization for accepting Shaw's "bizarre-shape" test over Miller's "dominant-purpose" test as the "lesser of two evils."27

The traditional standard used by the courts to determine voting rights standing has been to demonstrate the ability to draw a majority-minority district ñ a standard that has always plagued geographically dispersed minorities like APAs. But in a 1998 Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review article, Steven Mulroy, a Department of Justice civil rights attorney, argued for a different yardstick,28 proposing that Voting Rights Act liability may be established and alternative remedies obtained even where plaintiffs cannot draw a compact majority-minority district but can demonstrate sufficient numbers to reach the victory threshold of viability -- the aforementioned Droop threshold -- necessary for alternative voting systems. Using Mulroy's legal approach would still allow the drawing of majority-minority districts if that intervention proved to be the most effective. But it would also allow use of other interventions like proportional representation when majority-minority districts cannot be drawn due to geographic dispersion of the targeted constituency or political/judicial opposition. Thus, Mulroy's approach is more comprehensive and a powerful tool in voting rights lawsuits, offering to dispersed minority groups like APAs a "way out" of a dilemma posed by the race-conscious imperative of the Voting Rights Act and the race-neutral limits of Shaw v. Reno.

But there can be pragmatic arguments for proportional systems quite apart from the legal battles over Shaw. As civil rights attorneys have discovered in more than fifty Texas jurisdictions with cumulative voting and in the more than two dozen counties and cities in North Carolina and Alabama that have settled with limited voting, proportional and semi-proportional systems sometimes are a good fit with local conditions. Perhaps the minority community is more geographically dispersed than necessary for a single-seat district plan -- like the Asian Pacific American communities in New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco, where majority-minority districts have utterly failed to adequately represent APAs, electing only one APA out of a total of 77 local government seats. Perhaps a small jurisdiction wants to avoid redistricting every decade. In some multi-racial communities, small and large, a citywide proportional plan is the easiest way for different racial minorities to elect representation without the pitfalls of gerrymandering and perennial lawsuits.

Local government is an obvious place for considering proportional plans -- the calculations of what it takes to win representation are quite straightforward. Redistricting and reapportionment, especially in racially diverse and polyglot cities like Los Angeles, New York City and San Francisco pose several vexing questions: should single-seat districts continue to be the preferred Voting Rights remedy, even when such districts produce electoral success for certain minority groups at the expense of other minority groups? Conversely, if it can be demonstrated that multi-seat proportional voting schemes will do a better job than single-seat districts at giving political representation to all racial minority groups in a given locality, isnít there a Voting Rights imperative that such schemes be utilized? Knowing what we now know about the ineffectiveness of single-seat districts for yielding electoral success to Asian Pacific American voters in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and elsewhere, isn't it time for the voting rights community to explore alternative voting systems that will be fair to everyone?

Given the new and vague rules established by the courts for drawing single-seat districts, alternative voting system show great promise for providing the most equitable solution for all.

[Steven Hill is the western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. Rob Richie is the Center's executive director. They are the co-authors of Reflecting All of Us (Beacon Press 1999), and Hill is author of a forthcoming book from Routledge Press in Fall 2001.]

Appendix 1: A Lexicon of Proportional/Semi-proportional Voting Systems

Proportional representation is more a principle that any specific voting system, and the principle is this: that groupings of like-minded voters should win representation in proportion to their voting strength. Certain voting systems fulfill this principle more than others, and various proportional and semi-proportional systems exist. The details of different systems matter, but the key point is that all voters are empowered to mobilize and win their fair share of representation. There are partisan and non-partisan forms; more than 200 localities in the United States use one of three non-partisan systems: cumulative voting, limited voting or choice voting.1 Candidates are elected at-large or in multi-seat districts (constituencies electing more than one representative). Limited voting, cumulative voting and choice voting are based on voting for candidates (not parties) and already are used in local elections in the United States.

Limited Voting: a semi-proportional system where voters either cast fewer votes than the number of seats or political parties nominate fewer candidates than there are seats. The greater the difference between the number of seats and the number of votes, the greater the opportunities for minority representation. Versions of limited voting are used in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia (PA), Hartford (CT) and numerous local jurisdictions. It has been used to resolve at least 25 voting rights cases. Limited voting with one vote ñ the method fairest to those in the minority ñ is used for nearly all municipal elections in Japan.

Example: In a race to elect five candidates, voters could be limited to one or two votes. The highest vote-getters (simple plurality) -- the five candidates with the most votes ñ win.

Cumulative Voting: a semi-proportional system where voters cast as many votes as there are seats to be elected, but unlike a traditional at-large system voters are not limited to giving only one vote to a candidate. Instead, they can put multiple votes on one or more candidates. In a five-seat race, a voter can give all five of her votes to one candidate, or three votes to one candidate and two votes to another candidate, etc. She can "cumulate" or "spend" her votes however she wishes.

Cumulative voting was used to elect the Illinois state legislature from 1870 to 1980. In recent years it has been used to resolve voting rights cases for city council elections in numerous jurisdictions in Texas, Illinois, New Mexico, South Dakota and elsewhere.

Example: In a race to elect five candidates, voters can cast one vote for five candidates, five votes for one candidate or a combination in between. The five highest vote-getters (simple plurality) win.

Choice voting: a fully proportional system also known as "single transferable vote" and "preference voting." Choice voting is the most common proportional system found in other English-speaking nations. Each voter has one vote, but can rank as few or as many candidates as they wish in order of preference (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.). Ballots are counted like a series of runoffs, eliminating candidates with least support Candidates win by reaching a "victory threshold" roughly equal to the number of votes divided by the number of seats. The ranked ballots facilitate coalition-building and allows candidates to run without fear of being a "spoiler" that is splitting the vote.

Choice voting is used for city council and school board elections in Cambridge, MA (since 1941), and their city council has had consistent black representation since the 1950s. Choice voting also is used for local school board elections in New York City, where it has consistently produced high rates of representation for blacks, Latinos and Asian Pacific Americans (higher than the district elections used for city council and other offices). Choice voting was used until the 1950s in Cincinnati, Cleveland, New York City and other American cities, and resulted in fair racial, ethnic and partisan representation. The Republic of Ireland and Australia use choice voting for national legislative elections, and have done so for decades.

1. In addition, different varieties of proportional systems are used in most well-established democracies, and of the 36 major democracies with a high Freedom House human rights rating and a population over two million people, only two -- the United States and Canada -- use exclusively winner-take-all elections for national elections.[1] This year South Africa held its second election using proportional representation; once again, voter turnout and voter respect for the outcome were high, and all racial groupings elected a fair share of seats without gerrymandering a single district. See Andrew Reynolds and Ben Reilly. The International IDEA Handbook of Electoral System Design. Stockholm: Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 1997, page 20.

Authors' Biographies

Robert Richie is the executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy (, a non-profit organization that researches and educates about the impact of voting systems and the legislative redistricting process on political representation, voter turnout, accountable governance and campaign finance reform. The Center has advised judges, plaintiffs and defendants in some of the most significant voting rights cases of our times. Mr. Richie is co-author of Reflecting All of Us (Beacon Press) and his commentaries have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Roll Call, Nation, National Civic Review, Social Policy, Boston Review, Christian Science Monitor, Miami Herald and dozens of newspapers via the Knight-Ridder wire service. Richie is an expert on both international and domestic electoral systems and has directed the Center (whose president is former Member of Congress John Anderson) since its founding in 1992. Richie has addressed the Voting Rights Section of the U. S. Department of Justice, the Texas Commission on Judicial Efficiency, the annual conventions of the National Association of Counties, American Political Science Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures, and testified in special sessions before numerous charter commissions and state legislative committees. He has been a panelist at national conferences of organizations like the National Rainbow Coalition, Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Feminist Majority Foundation, NAACP LDEF, Voting Integrity Project, U.S. Term Limits and National Black Caucus of State Legislators. Richie has worked closely with government officials and community leaders seeking to improve and reform New York's Community School Board elections. He is a frequent source for print, radio and television journalists.
Steven Hill is the western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. He is the co-author of Reflecting All of Us, published by Beacon Press. He is a frequent contributor of political commentaries to the Knight-Ridder wire service, and his articles and commentaries have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines, including the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, The Nation, Ms., Roll Call, Miami Herald, Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express-News, Providence Journal, Hartford Courant,, Mother Jones Wire,, Asian Week, Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Review, Social Policy, In These Times, and many others. His work has also been published in the academic press, including Representation: Journal of Representative Democracy (Winter 1998), Inroads, a Journal of Opinion (Issue 7, 1998), and the anthologies Making Every Vote Count (Broadview Press) and Civil Rights Since 1787 (New York University Press). He co-authored a paper presented at the Western Political Science Association convention in 1997. He is a frequent guest on radio and TV shows, and has given presentations, testimony and workshops to numerous conferences, charter commissions, legislative committees and organizations. He is a researcher of European politics and political institutions, having conducted research trips in the past two years to Brussels, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam and Bonn.

1. "Alternative electoral systems" like cumulative voting, limited voting, and choice voting (also known as the "single transferable vote") are designed to provide more opportunity for the electoral viability of voting minorities than the traditional, "winner-take-all" at-large method of election, even though they do not involve the use of single-member districts.  Each such system features elections held jurisdiction-wide ("multi-seat" or "at-large"), without carving the jurisdiction up into subdistricts.  However, unlike the traditional at-large system, these three "alternative" systems employ special voting rules designed to enhance the abilities of minority voting blocs to obtain  representation.  See Edward Still, "Alternatives to Single-Member Districts." Minority Vote Dilution, ed. C. Davidson (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1984).  

2. Robyn Followwill, "Cumulative voting," Amarillo Globe-News, (1 August 1999).

3. Bill Lann Lee, Letter to Eric Proshansky, Esq., Assistant Corporation Counsel, City of New York, dated February 4, 1999.

4. See Lani Guinier, "The Representation of Minority Interests:  The Question Of Single-Member Districts," 14 Cardozo L. Rev. 1135, 1137 (1993); "No Two Seats:  The Elusive Quest For Political Equality,"  77 Va. L. Rev. 1413 (1991);  "The Triumph of Tokenism:  The Voting Rights Act And The Theory Of Black Electoral Success," 89 Mich. L. Rev. 1077 (1991).

5. "Single-member (or-seat) districts," the traditional voting rights remedy, carve a jurisdiction up into geographic boundaries within which a single representative is elected by the voters within that geographic area to represent that area.  They contrast with "multi-member (or -seat) districts," geographic areas from which more than one representative is elected, and "at-large systems," in which no districts are used, and voters from all over the jurisdiction may vote for multiple representatives.

6. Shaw v. Reno, 509 U.S. 630 (1993); Miller v. Johnson, 115 S.Ct. 2475 (1995); Vera v. Bush, 116 S.Ct. 1941 (1996); Shaw v. Hunt, 116 S.Ct. 1894 (1996); Abrams v. Johnson, 117 S.Ct. 1925 (1997).

7. See, e.g.,  John Anderson, "Go Back to the Drawing Board To Make More Votes Count," Christian Science Monitor, (12 January 1996): 18; William Raspberry, "The Balkanization of America," Washington Post, (7 July 1995): op-ed page; "A Route to Fairer Voting," USA Today, (30 June 1995): sec. 1A, p. 12;  Peter Applebome, "Guinier Ideas, Once Seen as Odd, Now Get Serious Study," New York Times, (3 April 1994): sec. 1A, p. 9.

8. See Rich DeLeon, Lisel Blash and Steven Hill, 1997. ìThe Politics of Electoral Reform in San Francisco: Preference Voting Versus Districts Versus Plurality At-Large.î (Paper presented at the 1997 Annual Meeting of the Western Political Science Association, Tucson, AZ, 13-15 March 1997).

9. The threshold of representation for proportional representation can be determined by one of two formulas.  The first is called the Hare threshold, and is determined by dividing the number of contested seats into the number of votes cast:   

Total   number   of   votes   cast  
number of contested seats

The second is called the Droop threshold, and is determined by dividing the number of contested seats + 1 into the number of votes cast, plus one more vote:

Total   number   of   votes   cast       + 1 more vote
number of contested seats + 1

Qualitatively, the Droop threshold is equal to the least number of votes a candidate needs to win such that, when all seats are filled, there are not enough votes left over to elect another candidate.

10. Letters to Department of Justice by Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, September 1998 - February 1999.

11. Choice voting is a proportional representation voting system also known as single transferable vote and preference voting.  Each voter is allowed (but not required) to rank her or his favorite candidates in order of choice, 1,2,3, etc. Ballots are counted like a series of runoff elections, and the ìvictory thresholdî is determined by use of the aforementioned Hare or Droop threshold.  Typically choice voting will require a far smaller percentage of the vote to win a seat.  In the New York City school board elections, a winning candidate needs 10% of the vote to win one seat.

12. As usual, there were unfortunate -- and unnecessary -- problems with the type of ballot-count used for choice voting elections in New York City.  New York persists in counting these ballot by hand, rather than automating and computerizing the process like Cambridge, MA has done.

13. Letters to Department of Justice by Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, September 1998 - February 1999.

14. The Droop threshold (not the Hare threshold) is used in New York City for the community school board elections.

15. Richard L. Engstrom,  "Modified Multi-Seat Election Systems as Remedies for Minority Vote Dilution," 21 Stetson L. Rev. 743, 750 (1992).  Richard Engstrom, Delbert A. Taebel, and Richard L. Cole.  "Cumulative Voting As A Remedy For Minority Vote Dilution: The Case Of Alamogordo," Journal of Law and Politics 5 (Spring 1989): 469-497; Richard Engstrom & Charles Barrilleaux, "Native Americans And Cumulative Voting The Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux," 72 Social Science Quarterly, 388, 391-392 (1991);  Robert Brischetto and Richard Engstrom, "Cumulative Voting And Latino Representation: Exit Surveys In Fifteen Texas Communities," 78 Social Science Quarterly 4 (1997).

16. David Brockington, Todd Donovan, Shaun Bowler, and Robert Brischetto.. "Minority Representation Under Limited and Cumulative Voting." Journal of Politics 60 (November 1998): 1108-1125.

17. Jerome Gray, Winning Fair Representation in At-Large Elections: Cumulative Voting and Limited Voting in Alabama Local Elections (Southern Regional Council and Center for Voting and Democracy, 1999).

18. Richard H. Pildes and Kristen A. Donoghue. 1995. "Cumulative Voting in the United States." University of Chicago Legal Forum (1995): 241-313.

19. McCoy v. Chicago Heights, 6 F. Supp.2d 973  (N.D. Ill. 1998).

20. Harper v. Chicago Heights, 98-2785 , et al, opinion on July 27,2000 by 7th circuit.

21. Voting Age Population is what is generally used in voting rights cases, as it is less open to quick fluctuation and is a more accurate count of the numbers of eligible voters who choose to participate or not. But differentials in registered voters obviously have an impact and must be factored in when determining electoral viability.

22. Using the Droop threshold, three seats produces a representation threshold of 25 percent, plus one more vote.

100% of total number of votes cast = 100% = 25% (+1 more vote)

number of contested seats + 1                      3+1

23. Using the Droop threshold, five seats produces a representation threshold of 16.67 percent, plus one more vote.

100% of total number of votes cast = 100% = 16.67%  (+ 1 more vote)

number of contested seats + 1             5+1       

24. Samson Wong, "District Elections -- Who Benefits?" Asian Week, (18 January, 2001).  In 2000, Mr. Wong estimates the Asian population to be more like 40% of San Francisco.

25. The Center for Voting and Democracy and Democracy South, Bigger Districts Don't Mean More Expensive Campaigns.

26. Robert Brischetto and Richard Engstrom, "Cumulative Voting And Latino Representation: Exit Surveys In Fifteen Texas Communities," 78 Social Science Quarterly 4 (1997); Engstrom, Richard L., and Robert R. Brischetto. "Is Cumulative Voting Too Complex? Evidence from Exit Polls." Stetson Law Review 27 (Winter 1998): 813-834.

27. Pamela S. Karlan. "The Fire Next Time: Reapportionment After the 2000 Census." Stanford Law Review 50 (February): 729-763 (1998).

28. Steven J. Mulroy, "The Way Out:  A Legal Standard For Imposing Alternative Electoral Systems As Voting Rights Remedies," 33 Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 333 (1998).