How was the former system (in Port Chester, NY) unfair?

A friend just brought this ongoing story to my intention.

In a nutshell, a lawsuit was filed that argued the system they had for electing members to their board was discriminating against Hispanic candidates. Apparently the town had six seats on the board, and everyone in the town could vote for all seats. And historically no Hispanics had been elected to the board even though they made up 21.9% of the voters. The ruling had the town change to cumulative voting where a voter could cast all six of their votes for one candidate, or one vote for six candidates, or some mixture thereof.

I’m not looking for an argument on the merits of the case, but in looking at these articles, it is not clear to me what was flawed with the old system. What was wrong with the old system? How is the new cumulative system more fair?


Judging only by this snippet from the last link:

*According to the most recent census data, from 2006 to 2008, Latinos make up 49 percent of the village’s roughly 28,000 people, though many are not citizens; about 39 percent are non-Hispanic whites and 7 percent are black. Still, in past elections, the preferred candidates for the village board among Latino voters were usually defeated.

A federal lawsuit, filed in 2006 by the Justice Department, charged that the village’s method of electing its trustees diluted the voting strength of Latino citizens. A federal court judge agreed, and in 2009 ordered the imposition of a rarely used process known as cumulative voting. Port Chester’s election began with early voting last week and culminated on Tuesday, with the vote count extending into early Wednesday. *

The argument seems to be that the previous method, where all six positions were considered “at large”, meaning each position represents the entire community rather than a particular geographic portion thereof, meant that essentially the same people were electing the same candidates all the time. Minority voters could not hope to win a single seat, despite comprising a sizable portion of the population. The new system of cumulative voting allows minority voters to concentrate on a single candidate if they so choose, and thereby improve their chances of winning one of the available positions.

An alternative remedy would possibly be forcing the town to divide into districts, and designing said districts in such a way as to allow minority voters a chance to have a district where their voting strength could give them a chance at electing a preferred candidate.

I think you’ll likely see several similar cases once the census data is in, and states/communities start redistricting.

Having all seats at large was an extremely common technique in the US South to prevent black candidates from winning. Blacks might make up 40% of the vote but only white candidates would win. And the consequences of this was quite severe. So Federal law really frowns on this.

The solution isn’t really a solution, just a gesture. It’s pretty clear that the town officials are jerks.

Doesn’t that make a huge, and unprovable assumption about the voting patterns of the majority whites though? Without knowing how each ballot was cast and mapping that to the race of the person casting the vote, you can’t really know the reason why any person didn’t get elected. The whites would have to vote as a uniform group to continually ‘block’ any particular candidate’s chances of winning a seat. It is the assumption that a racial group is going to vote as a block that troubles me most.

Heck look at how contested primary elections are where there is no racial component (i.e. both candidates are of the same race). And a lot of times primaries are furthermore only for people of a similar political philosophy. The existence of contested primaries would seem to provide evidence that you cannot assume people of a particular race will vote as a block.
On edit I see that ftg’s post shows there is a history behind this.

Sometimes broad statistics are good enough. You don’t need to prove specific intent. If 40 percent of the population is Hispanic, and no Hispanic candidate ever wins more than 40 percent of the vote, and no Hispanic candidate ever wins a seat, you don’t need to map each vote.

Your looking at a case where all the representatives were ‘at large’ positions. Imagine the US Congress being elected on that basis. All of the representatives would end up coming from New York, Florida, Texas, and California.

Several Ohio cities and towns have a mix of at-large and ward-based council members for just this reason. I’ve never heard of cumulative voting being either ordered by a court or adopted by local government, though.

It must be an interesting ethnic dynamic at work there if 40% of the voters cannot elect even one council member. This is where election organizing, especially the “get the vote out” drive on election day, is very important.

If it appears that ethnicity is the main reason to voter choices, whites refuse to vote for latinos, then the decision is justified. As said above, often at large elections in diverse communities are specifically designed to prevent minorities winning.

I wonder at the overall situation behind the elections too. If a real race developed in that community between several white candidates, then a candidate very popular with latinos should have no problem winning; if votes were split along ethnic lines, then the white vote woudl be split and some latinos would win. Was there some conspiracy to agree on the “white slate” to prevent this eventuality?

I think cumulative voting is just another method,and don’t see anything wrong with it. The motivation for it though in this case, seems to be flawed. The assumption is that Hispanics need to be represented by Hispanics, or that a Hispanic can best represent Hispanics. and that raises the question, even to the degree that that might be true, isn’t it clearly a racist belief? And isn’t that 180 degrees from the ideals of this country?

Also, to what degree do we allow a lack of racially proportional representation to dictate, or allow, steps be taken to rectify the lack of representation. If the U.S is 16% black, 20% Hispanic, and 7% Asian, should congress necessarily be 16% black, 20% Hispanic, and 7% Asian? And as ideal as that may be, doesn’t go against our fundamental principles to make that happen?

Say, in Portchester, the new method of voting results in the same outcome of having six non-Hispanics represented, what’s the next step? Is there one? If the reason for changing the new law was to force, or encourage, Hispanics getting elected, and it fails to do so, can/should other steps be taken that would be more effective? Steps that might be clearly racist—for example, could we justify giving Hispanics six votes and non-Hispanics four votes? If not, why not? Again, I don’t think cumulative voting is inherently flawed with this problem, but it can be, and sees to be in this case, racially motivated.

I don’t know what the answer is. Especially when districting and the strange way they are redrawn over time is also a way to ensure representation. But we start to head down a very slipper slope.

The whole slate is ‘at large’ candidates, so it’s not about 1 on 1 campaigns. Portchester is a village, not too big, and ethnicity may not even be the issue. There are probably entrenched politics at play that keep new comers from getting consideration in general. The simpler remedy would be dividing the village into districts which each have a rep, but that’s going to produce pretty small districts. The court solution doesn’t sound much better. Maybe they could reduce the elections to 1 seat at a time so there could be more competitive races.

You might be reading to much into it. Even if there were no ‘ethnic’ lines, a system of elections that favors a portion of the electorate doesn’t serve democracy. Within a small village like this those things seem likely to happen with any voting system. Since the solution sounds like it gives one person more than one vote, it will be controversial. The town of Rye, in which the village resides, has had these sub-locality issues in the past based on economic divisions.

Just reviewed some more info on this, and it may be that the village chose the cumulative voting system over a districting plan.Could be local political factors at work that hard to analyze at that level. In small municipalities personal issues can cloud the dynamic. Since this is an area that would receive additional services at the town and county level, village government is left to ‘dog catcher’ type issues.

The thing is with small(er) towns is that people don’t vote. So elections can be won by as little as 2 or 3 percent of the possible eligible voters voting.

So total numbers are meaningless.

I’ll give you an example, I lived in a small town in the suburbs of Chicago with about 5% black population.

People were astonished when the town elected a black village president. How did he win? Turns out he was not better qualified or had more support. He was just smarter.

He and two other white candidates were running. So he had his campaign call all the eligible voters in the town and ask who they were voting for. The got the results, knowing that most of these people would never actually vote.

Come election day he got vans and went to every house that said they’d vote for him and he drove the people from their homes to the polls. He won, and by a lot.

But if you look he won by a lot of the people voting. Less than 2% of the people eligible to vote DID vote.

You see he figured out HOW the system worked and then used it.

So you can’t say how many Hispanic voters are there. You have to look at how many actually vote IN LOCAL elections.

This is the key, most people will vote for president or senators, but they can’t be bothered for these smaller offices. Towns and states used to run all the elections at once. This way if a person makes a trip to vote for Mr Obama, he can vote for the governor, senator and mayor all at once.

But local and state governments thought that gave an unfair advantage to the party likely to win the presidency and it took focus away from local issues.

So to understand things like this, forget “eligible voters,” that’s meaningless. An eligible voter might not even be registered to vote. Don’t go by registered voters. Go by who actually votes.

I’m not so sure. For good or ill, it seems to be part and parcel of democracy that one portion of the electorate will be favored. But I readily admit to philosophizing.

I’m from right near this area. Rye is one of the wealthiest communities in the country, bordering on Greenwich and Purchase. Portchester is the old factory/working class area in the region. While it has some nice parts, it can’t hold a candle to even Mamoroneck, which is just south of Rye.But I did not know that Port Chester was part of Rye. That explains a lot. In this case, it seems to me like districting would have resulted in a greater likelihood that a Hispanic would be elected. But, it looks like I could be wrong:

I think I like this cumulative voting. It not only allows you to say who you want in, bud how badly. Interesting.

Yeah, even discounting the ethnic concerns, that system isn’t horribly ‘unfair’, but it is designed to circumvent the fairness advantage of having a six-person board in the first place, which is to allow minority opinions a voice.

With this system, as I understand it, a 50%+1 majority can collude to pack every seat of the board - or take advantage of a plurality to do the same thing - exactly as if the ‘board’ were a single official, like a mayor, who was being elected.

To me, it seems more sensible that if you have a multiple-person board, you should have an elections system that makes it harder for a slim minority of the electorate to pack the whole board with people who think as they do - like geographical districts or a one-vote proportional representation system. The ‘six assignable votes’ approach seems plausible for that too.

The five commissioners who together comprise Franklin County (NC)'s legislative board are all elected on a partisan basis at large by the entire county’s voters. The kick is that each must be resident in one of five roughly equal-in-population districts which he is elected to represent. In other words, the Commissioner for the First District, who represents us, is chosen by majority vote by the whole county voting electorate, but must live in the First District. Similarly for the Second, Third, etc. Districts. Generally there are two black members on the board (only one at present), and there seems to be consensus across party and racial lines that the system does a good job of ensuring minority representation without gerrymandering.

That’s an interesting approach, and looks much better than the PortChester solution. At large representation has a tendency to cause problems when there is a clear majority group that can dominate the elections. It has advantages when mixed with district representation by giving minority groups the ability to combine votes across district lines. Your county seems to be using a technique that encourages voters to consider the needs of the entire electorate instead of focusing on a select group of voters.

Do you have any cites for this? It certainly runs counter to my own experience and to everything I’ve read in the past.

Not at all. Here’s a simplified version: Let’s say we have a three-member board, and 100 people voting.

With three “at large” positions, each of the 100 people gets one vote for each of the three seats. If 51 of the people agree on three candidates, those three candidates will be elected. If a candidate can’t get more votes than his opponents, he loses.

With cumulative voting, each of the 100 people gets three votes to use as they choose. A group of 33 people can decide to back one particular candidate (call him “Bob”) for seat “A,” and each of them throws all 3 votes to that person, ignoring the other two seats. Bob gets 99 votes. If the other 67 people voting in the election spread their votes around over the three seats, they can’t put more than 67 votes up for seat “A,” so even if none of them vote for Bob, he’ll win overwhelmingly. In this case, Bob’s opponent for that seat could have been supported by 67% of voters, and Bob still would have beat him.

I think this part may be giving me the most concern. The redistricting, the dividing the board’s election into separate elections for seats versus, the whole shooting match, sound like good ideas as well. But holding elections costs money, and this was probably the cheapest alternative.

Holy crap! I’m pretty sure a friend of mine was a lawyer on this case. I’ll point her to this thread, but I don’t know if she will want to comment.

To clarify, my comments were meant to refer to the ‘at large’ system referenced in the OP, and not the cumulative voting system that had been mentioned in the posts immediately above mine. Sorry for not elaborating further in the first place.