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Cumulative voting pitched for SCV

Posted: August 2, 2014 10:32 p.m.
Updated: August 2, 2014 10:32 p.m.

In a handful of communities nationwide, voters can head to the polls and cast their votes for one candidate. Then they can vote for that candidate again. And maybe even again and again.

This idea of voting multiple times for the same candidate, apparently a foreign concept in California, is called cumulative voting, and it could be coming to at least two Santa Clarita Valley elections soon.

Pitched as a way to settle California Voting Rights Act lawsuits in the Santa Clarita Valley, cumulative voting is being studied by both the city of Santa Clarita and the Santa Clarita Community College District.

The city and college district, along with the Sulphur Springs School District, were sued for allegedly diluting the power of minority voters, namely Latinos, to elect candidates of their choice by employing at-large elections.

At-large elections are favored by many California municipal governments. Under that system, every voter within a given municipal boundary can vote once for as many candidates as there are seats open.

Those who sued the city, College of the Canyons’ governing board and Sulphur Springs pushed for by-district elections, but cumulative voting was agreed upon as a possible remedy.

Such a system would allow minority voters to pile votes onto a single candidate.

While a cumulative voting system in the Santa Clarita Valley would break new ground locally, such is not the case nationally. Several municipal agencies around the United States have cumulative voting systems in place.

But whether cumulative voting is the cure-all for accusations that at-large elections dilute the minority vote is another question.


If you want to find someone who believes in the power of cumulative voting, look no further than Bobby Agee.

Agee, an African-American, was elected to the County Commission in Chilton County, Ala., after the commission moved to a cumulative voting system.

He said he attributes his election victory “100 percent to the system.”

“When cumulative voting was implemented, for the first time it gave minorities the opportunity to lump their votes behind one minority candidate, which gave them a chance at representation,” Agee said. “That wouldn’t have happened if it had not been for cumulative voting.”

Located in the middle of Alabama, Chilton County is predominantly white, but about 10 percent of its population is African-American, according to census data.

Agee was elected to the commission in 1988.

“There had never been a black person elected to a countywide position prior to that,” he said. “I guess with all fairness there probably had never been a black person to run for a countywide position because they knew it would be a waste of their time and their money.”

The cumulative voting system in Chilton County works in much the same way the system could work in the Santa Clarita Valley.


The Amarillo Independent School District in Texas adopted a cumulative voting system to settle a lawsuit brought under the federal Voting Rights Act.

As in Chilton County, the cumulative voting system in the Amarillo district is virtually identical to the one that could be put in place in the Santa Clarita Valley.

“Basically, however many positions you have (up for election), each voter has that many votes to cast among the candidates however they choose,” said Les Hoyt, the district’s chief financial officer.

“So if you have four trustees, in our case, you have four votes and you can cast all four for one, two votes for one, any way you want to portion them out.”

Hoyt said cumulative voting was put into place in the Amarillo district in 2000.

However, he said, “It’s hard to quantify what caused any one person to be elected,”

That’s where political scientists like Dave Rausch come in.

Rausch, a Teel Bivins Professor of Political Science at West Texas A&M University, has studied the cumulative voting system in Amarillo.

In Amarillo’s first cumulative voting election held in 2000, one candidate, James Allen, “received at least one vote from more than half the voters, 51.6 percent, and 7.8 percent of the ballots had four votes cast for him,” Rausch wrote in his study of the election.

Allen, an African-American, was appointed to the Amarillo board in 1999 before running successfully for a seat in 2000.

Another candidate in that election, Rita Sandoval, “received four votes from 3.6 percent of the voters,” according to Rausch. She, too, was elected in 2000.

In his paper, Rausch writes that Sandoval “clearly benefitted from cumulative voting” and also points out that Sandoval campaigned with the premise of cumulative voting in mind, noting some of her campaign materials urged voters to “Vote 4 for Rita.”

But the role cumulative voting played in 2000 has not necessarily been demonstrated in elections since, Rausch said.

“What I’ve found is lots of voters still vote one time for each candidate,” he said.

Lack of candidates — minority or otherwise — has also made it difficult to calculate the effects of cumulative voting, he said.

“To be honest with you, I don’t think it’s really shown that much of a difference because, in some cases, no one ever runs,” he said.

Allen still serves on the Amarillo board, but he is currently the only minority member, according to Rausch. Sandoval did not file for re-election.


In California, cumulative voting is largely unknown on a municipal level.

Patrick Whitnell, general counsel for the League of California Cities, said he is not aware of any city in California that employs cumulative voting in its elections.

However, he said, the California Voting Rights Act does provide some flexibility for cities looking to address potential issues under the law.

“It’s hard to know for a given city or any government agency what is the best voting method to elect officials that is most fair and offers the most equal opportunity for all the voters to participate in the election and to influence the election,” Whitnell said.

Even though cumulative voting has been used as a way to settle some cases brought under the federal Voting Rights Act, Whitnell said, it’s unclear whether that would influence the decision of a judge in California.

A hearing to determine if Santa Clarita can adopt a cumulative voting system as part of its settlement is set for a Superior Court hearing on Sept. 8.


Even if cumulative voting goes into place in the Santa Clarita Valley, that’s only part of the equation. Another would be ensuring voters know how to vote under the new system.

“There will be more spoiled ballots, more mistakes, more people that miss the publicity about the change and are confused about their votes,” predicted Brian Gaines, a professor at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if in the first election there’s extra confusion about voting and counting the ballots.”

Illinois is perhaps the most notable historical example of cumulative voting. Voters in the Land of Lincoln employed a form of cumulative voting to elect some members of the state legislature for more than a century, until the “Cutback Amendment” ended the practice in 1980.

However, Gaines said, that system was different from the one that could be put in place in Santa Clarita because Illinois used to elect three representatives in a district.

“It was motivated pretty openly when they adopted the 1870 constitution as a way to strengthen partisan minorities,” Gaines said.

But cumulative voting in Illinois ended up having some unintended consequences, he added.

“Something a critic might say, and it’s not noticed that often, is it really led to a high rate of uncontested races,” Gaines said.

He also questioned whether a cumulative voting system alone would address a lack of minority representation.

“It’s not clear to me that it would really deliver what people are after, barring some coordination,” he said.

The Amarillo school district did an outreach campaign to inform voters about the new system, CFO Hoyt said. But there were still a few hiccups.

“I think it was just unfamiliarity — it was new, we hadn’t voted that way before,” Hoyt said. “I think it just took some time to get used to.”

“I think once people understood, it wasn’t an issue,” he said.

Ballot restrictions

There are also potential problems when cumulative voting is combined with changing election dates to November of even-numbered years, as both Santa Clarita and the Santa Clarita Community College district have pledged to do.

Both may seek to consolidate elections with the county ballot to ensure higher voter turnout. But Efrain Escobedo, governmental and legislative affairs manager for the Los Angeles County Office of Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk, told The Signal earlier this year that cumulative voting would likely be incompatible with the county’s current election system.

Any problems with switching to cumulative voting could be exacerbated if local elections are not consolidated with the county. This could mean different elections, perhaps with different voting methods, would be held on the same day, potentially in different places.

But until guidance is handed down by the court, the future, or lack thereof, of cumulative voting in the Santa Clarita Valley remains undetermined.

“I think ultimately, and I guess this is maybe what’s happening in Santa Clarita, the court is going to have to examine that and determine whether or not that is a viable way to reduce vote dilution,” said Whitnell of the League of California Cities.

Rausch, the political science professor, said the system gives minority voters the ability to line up behind a specific candidate — if they so choose.

“But they have to work together to turn that possibility into reality,” he said.


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