In May 2000, in response to a voting-rights lawsuit, Amarillo, Texas, switched to the voting system known as cumulative voting for its school board elections. Under the old system, no blacks or Latinos had been elected to Amarillo's seven-member school board in more than two decades, although Latinos and African-Americans make up more than 20 percent of the city's population.
Cumulative voting had an immediate impact: both a black and a Latino candidate won seats. Minority voters all over the city suddenly had representation, and voter turnout increased more than three times.
Under the traditional “winner-take-all” system, minority voices might never prevail—because they are by definition in the minority. Under cumulative voting, voters cast as many votes as there are contested seats. But unlike in winner-take-all systems, voters are not limited to giving only one vote per candidate. Instead, they can give multiple votes to one or more candidates. This allows a minority voter to express a strong preference for a candidate.
More than 100 jurisdictions in the US have adopted such alternative voting systems to resolve voting rights lawsuits. Cumulative voting and limited voting have been used in Alabama, Illinois, New Mexico and South Dakota. More than 50 localities have adopted cumulative voting in Texas alone.
Cumulative voting is just one method for allowing voters to make their voices heard. In March 2002, San Francisco voters supported instant runoff voting (IRV) for citywide elections by an impressive 55 to 45 percent margin, while citizens at over 50 town meetings across Vermont overwhelmingly voted to urge state lawmakers to adopt instant runoff voting for statewide elections.
The instant runoff allows voters to select their runoff candidates at the same time as their top choice. Voters indicate their choices by ranking them on their ballots, 1, 2, 3, and so on. If no candidate wins a majority of first-choice votes, the votes for the candidates with the fewest votes automatically go to those voters’ second choice candidates—an instant runoff. With IRV, candidates have incentive to court other candidates’ supporters, asking for their second or third rankings. Successful candidates are usually those who build coalitions and emphasize issues, not those who rely on negative campaigning. With IRV there are no spoiler candidates or wasted votes.
Studies have demonstrated that these alternative voting systems boost turnout and increase minority and female representation
Steven Hill is the author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of America’s Winner Take All Politics (Routledge, ) and western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. He was campaign manager for San Francisco’s instant run-off initiative