Editor’s Note: This is Part 4 of a five-part series on voting systems and fair representation.
Wednesday saw discussion on proportional voting system, thought to be the fairest for minority representation. But there are other forms of PR as well.
Semiproportional Voting Systems
Semiproportional voting systems are somewhere between plural-majority systems and proportional representation systems. They were invented, according to the Mt. Holyoke Political Science Department, to solve some of the problems of plurality-majority voting, particularly the misrepresentation of parties and the lack of representation for ethnic and political minorities. In general, these systems tend to produce fairer representation than plurality-majority but less fair representation than fully proportional systems like choice voting.
Two types of semiproportional systems are limited voting and cumulative voting.
Limited voting is a variation of at-large voting and is rarely used worldwide. In the U.S. however, several cities and towns – mostly in Connecticut and Pennsylvania – have used the limited vote for years, primarily to ensure representation for political minorities. More recently, 21 towns in Alabama adopted limited voting to settle voting rights issues.
How it works: The limited vote works almost exactly the same as at-large voting. Candidates run in a multi-member (at-large) district. The winners are those with the most votes. The crucial difference is that voters have fewer votes than the number of seats to be elected – usually one or two fewer than the number of seats. The winners are the candidates with the most votes.
The main problem with this kind of vote is that the system is inconsistent – sometimes producing proportional results with few wasted votes and other times producing grossly disproportional results and wasting many votes.
The cumulative vote is the most talked about form of semiproportional voting because voting rights advocates have a growing interest in this form of voting. It is now used in several cities in Alabama to elect legislative bodies. It is also used in Amarillo and several other cities and towns in Texas to elect either local school boards or city councils.
The most common use in the U.S. however, is in the private sector for election of boards of directors in corporations. The aim is to allow minority stockholders (those owning less stock) to elect some representation to those governing bodies.
How it works: The cumulative vote is another form of at-large voting. Candidates run in a multi-member (at-large) district. Voters have as many votes as there are seats. Voters cast their votes for individual candidates and the winners are those with the most votes. The major difference is that voters may “cumulate” or combine their votes on one or more candidates in any way they want. For example, if there were three open seats, every voter would have three votes. The voter could give all three votes to one candidate or divide the three up as they see fit.
Cumulative voting tends to yield more proportional representation than plurality-majority systems and political and racial minorities have a better chance of fair representation. On the other hand, cumulative voting is less proportional than fully proportional systems like choice voting and at times political and racial minorities may be denied representation entirely especially if these groups nominate too many candidates. Like the Limited Vote Ballot, this form too, is inconsistent with its results.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in an opinion in Holder v. Hall (a 1994 ruling) that “the unvarnished truth is that all that is required for districting [single-member, at-large, etc.] to fall out of favor is for Members of this Court to further develop their political thinking…. Once we candidly recognize that geographic districting and other aspects of electoral systems that we have so far placed beyond question are merely political choices, those practices, too, may fall under suspicion of having a dilutive effect on minority voting strength. And when the time comes to put the question to the test, it may be difficult for a Court, that…has been bent on creating roughly proportional representation for geographically compact minorities to find a principled reason for holding that a geographically dispersed minority cannot challenge districting itself as a dilutive electoral practice. In principal, cumulative voting and other non-district-based methods of effecting proportional representation are simply more efficient and straightforward mechanism for achieving what has already become our tacit objective: roughly proportional allocation of political power according to race.”
Thomas cites a ruling out of The District Court for the District of Maryland, which opted for cumulative voting on a countywide basis in response to a Voting Rights Act violation. The court reasoned, quotes Thomas, “that, compared to a system that divides voters into districts according to race, ‘cumulative voting is less likely to increase polarization between different interests’ and that it ‘will allow the voters, by the way they exercise their votes, to “district” themselves,’ thereby avoiding government involvement in the process of segregating the electorate….”
(Part 5, conclusion.)