Latinos in Port Chester, New York, have a new and exciting opportunity to make their voices heard. On Friday, a federal judge settled a three-year dispute concerning how the Village elects its Village trustees. In response to a lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act, the judge accepted the Village’s proposal to use an alternative system called “cumulative voting” rather than carving the Village into new electoral districts. Latinos make up about half of Port Chester’s population, but no Latino had ever been elected to the Village’s Board of Trustees or to the office of mayor. The Department of Justice sued under the Voting Rights Act, arguing that the town’s at-large elections impeded opportunities for the Village’s Latino population to elect its own representatives. The judge agreed that the Village’s at-large election system denied the Latino population fair representation and the issue then became how to remedy the injustice.
The Brennan Center, representing FairVote as amicus curiae, offered a few creative proposals for how Port Chester could change its electoral system to assure fair representation to the town’s Latino population. The Department of Justice argued that the Village should be divided into districts, each one of which would elect one Village representative. Districts are the most common remedy to Voting Rights Act violations, and when drawn correctly, can be effective at improving minority representation. However, drawing districts takes time and expertise, and it often results in partisan jousting. Moreover, drawing the lines can often carve up communities for the sake of the electoral map. In Port Chester, which is about 2.4 square miles and has about 28,000 people, districting would result in small geographic areas with potentially residents on one side of the street being in a different district than their neighbors on the other side.
Moreover, districts are of limited advantage to the minority groups living outside the minority representation districts. This was a special concern in Port Chester where some 80 odd percent of the citizen voting-age Latino population lived outside the proposed remedial district. As the Latino population of Port Chester continues to grow (estimates are that it has grown 73% from 1990 to 2006), having only one district which elects the minority-preferred candidate could create another form of underrepresentation.
Cumulative Voting vs. Choice Voting
As an alternative, Port Chester proposed cumulative voting as a remedy, which allows citizens to cast multiple votes for a given candidate for a given seat. In the case of Port Chester, the six Trustee positions would be up all at one time, so the voters would get six votes to cast among the candidates. If a sufficient number of voters band together behind a candidate by “plumping” their votes, that is, giving all their votes to one candidate, those voters will elect their candidate.
The Brennan Center and FairVote, while supporting cumulative voting as a remedy, proposed an alternate system known as “choice voting.” Like cumulative voting, choice voting allows voters from across the jurisdiction to band together, but requires less discipline from voters. In choice voting, voters rank their candidates in the order they prefer them-first choice gets 1, second choice gets 2, and so forth. If a voter rates an unviable candidate first, then the ballot gets distributed to the voter’s next highest ranked viable candidate. If a candidate achieves enough votes for victory, then any extra votes for that candidate are distributed to the voters’ next viable candidate. The Cambridge, Massachusetts, city council and school board has been electing its members for decades using choice voting and it has been credited for the diversity in those bodies. Choice voting works well when there are multiple candidates preferred by the minority community because there’s little harm to ranking one preferred candidate first or second:under choice voting, whoever is the most viable will get credited their supporters’ votes, and/or if one candidate has greater support but both candidates are strong, the extraneous votes for the strongest candidate will get distributed to the second-favorite candidate. Choice voting also facilitates the building of coalitions. For example, a Port Chester voting bloc that consists of just about 29% of the turn-out could elect two candidates. A coalition of Latino and African-American voters, with a combined citizen voting age population in 2006 of more than 30%, could do that and no one would have to squabble over which candidate was being ranked first and who was being ranked second. As long as both communities’ preferred candidates were ranked first or second, both could be elected if turn-out was high enough.
The court accepted Port Chester’s proposal and has ordered the Village to elect its Trustees using cumulative voting. This is a very exciting opportunity for Latino voices to be heard in the Port Chester political process, but Port Chester Latinos must be vigilant about making cumulative voting work for them. All alternate systems depend on enough seats being up for grabs and there being sufficient turn-out to satisfy the mathematical thresholds on which the systems rely. Accordingly, in order for these alternate systems to succeed in increasing minority representation there must be ample voter education and mobilization. Opportunities like this do not come along every day. Port Chester’s Latinos now have a real opportunity to elect their candidate of choice, but they must get out and vote!
More information about United States v. Village of Port Chester, including our contributions to the case.