Tomorrow, the town of Port Chester, New York, population 28,000, wraps up the first round of its experiment with cumulative voting, a system whereby voters get multiple "votes" to distribute across their ballot. This new style of electing members of the town's board of trustees came about after a Voting Rights Act lawsuit questioned why, in a town of more than forty percent Latino population, there had never been a Latino on the town board. The case leaned on the Westchester county town to rejigger its at-large election system, and cumulative voting was the compromise that resulted.
The real appeal of cumulative voting, or multi-voting, is that it is a relatively unstructured way of running elections that still opens up the possibility of minority representation. Generally speaking, voters get an equal number of chits to the seats available during the election. Six seats are open on the Port Chester board, so residents will get six votes. Voters can distribute their six votes however they'd like -- one vote for each person on the ballot, two votes to three candidate, all six to one possibility, you get the idea. The promise is that if a minority population has a true interest in electing a representative from the community (or a representative committed to representing the community) they can "plump" for that candidate, loading up their votes for him or her.
Cumulative voting was the alternative that Port Chester suggested to the federal court to avoid being forced to run district-based elections, the sort of plan adopted by San Francisco in the late 1970s that helped to finally get Harvey Milk elected to the Board of Supervisors on the support of his voter base in the Castro, the city's gay neighborhood. San Francisco has flip-flopped between at-large and district-based elections since. The complaint, and it's not a crazy one, is that carving up the city into districts can be too contrived, putting marginal figures in positions of real city-wide power. That debate heated up again in San Francisco earlier this year.
It's neat to see a town experiment with figuring out how to achieve more representative representation, even if they were forced into it. How elections are run isn't pre-ordained, and it's part of the burden and blessing of our democratic experiment for us to think aggressively about better possibilities for how we do it. Port Chester's cumulative voting ends tomorrow at 8pm.
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