Cumulative voting for Orange County?

Chapel Hill Herald, Saturday November 05, 2005

Back in March, Moses Carey articulated an accurate argument against district representation for the County Commissioners.

"Any model that promotes or encourages parochialism will be dysfunctional in this county," Carey said. "Problems don't stop at district lines. Water flows across district lines; economic development doesn't occur all in one district. Narrowing the focus and encouraging people to care only about what happens within the lines of their district is just the opposite of what we need to be encouraging elected officials to do, which is to think more broadly and make decisions that are more broadly based."

But, it turns out that Carey was not arguing against districts per se. He was arguing for a system of districts in which the candidates must live within a district but would be elected by the entire county.

This solution, not surprisingly, does not satisfy residents of the rural sections of the county who feel that the current at-large system does not provide them with adequate representation.

But Carey is right. Districts take boundaries that are fluctuating and impermeable and harden them into self-fulfilling prophecies: Those within one district are henceforth presumed to have different interests from those in another.

Districting also leads us into an infinite regress which solves the problem by removing it to another level: quite simply, if it is true that conservatives dominate areas north of Hillsborough, then a district comprising that area would disenfranchise rural liberals.

Fortunately, there is a solution that respects Carey's concern for the unified functionality of the county while providing broader opportunities for representation to diverse constituencies.

Cumulative voting is a process that strengthens the ability of minority constituencies to gain representation. The method itself is simple. As things stand, next year we will elect three county commissioners. Thus, we will each have three votes.

At present, you can cast one vote per candidate for up to three candidates. Under cumulative voting, you would be able to cast up to three votes for a single candidate, two for one candidate and one for another, or any other combination that might express a voter's interests.

There are many benefits to such a system. First of all, it is more democratic in the sense that it allows constituencies to self-identify and to build alliances as they see fit.

Cumulative voting gets us away from the notion that, politically speaking, geography is destiny. It would encourage constituencies to form across the county along the lines suggested by Carey.

It would also encourage groups to seek out allies outside their core so as to gain the voting strength to win election.

The current system does so as well but it has a much higher threshold for success.

It is almost a certainty that cumulative voting would lead to the election of a more conservative member to the County Commissioners. Let's examine the 2004 numbers.

In the November election, Democrat Carey received 16,652 votes, Republican Jamie Daniel 12,021. Let's assume that those votes represent the total for their respective political viewpoints, Carey as moderate-liberal, Daniel as conservative.

Now, let's take the 2006 election and empower those same voters' three votes with cumulative voting. If, and assuming they ran again, Alice Gordon, Steve Halkiotis and Barry Jacobs each received one of those 16,652 votes, then only 5,000 or so Republicans would need to give both their votes to Daniel for him to win a seat (12,000 + 5,000 = 17,000). Under this scenario there would need to be a serious defection from one of the Democrats for a second Republican to be elected.

Democrats would still dominate but Republicans would have a voice. And that seems to be exactly what rural conservatives are demanding.

It is important to note that such a system would also have an impact on the Democratic primary, potentially changing the dynamics of how intra-party coalitions are formed. It could also change the relationship between politically engaged advocacy groups and the candidates, particularly in terms of endorsements.

Such groups might be more likely to encourage single- or double-shot voting for preferred candidates and, as a result, expect more accountability from those candidates when elected. Better accountability of candidates to their constituents is sure to improve both government and politics.

Under cumulative voting, various political tendencies would actually seek to strengthen themselves across the county.

Such a system would bring the county together, not divide it. It would identify key political blocs and give them the chance to elect people to office.

And it would do so without entrenching geographical divisions that do not necessarily correspond to current or future political realities.



Interestingly, a county committee appointed by Moses Carey (with Alice Gordon & Steve halkiotis on the Board as well) in 1993 concluded its work by recommending two solutions to the lack of fair representation that they found.

One was cumulative voting.

"Districting also leads us into an infinite regress which solves the problem by removing it to another level: quite simply, if it is true that conservatives dominate areas north of Hillsborough, then a district comprising that area would disenfranchise rural liberals."

Much like the current disenfrancisement of conservatives in Chapel Hill and Carrboro?


Cumulative voting would allow "conservatives" in Chapel Hill to align with rural "conservatives" to support certain candidates.

The beauty if cumulative voting is that it responds to the political demographics of each election by creating "virtual districts".

Good column, Dan!

You can use a statistical measure known as the "threshold of exclusion," to determine the lowest percentage of support from a single group that ensures their candidate will win no matter what other voters do. This level of support is 25 percent in a three-seat race (the formula for the threshold is one divided by one more than the number of seats).

As advocated by Lani Guinier, cumulative voting has been used in Texas school board elections with mixed outcomes for minority candidates. But more interesting is that the greatest use of cumulative voting is for the election of corporate board of directors. It originated because of abuses of power by railroad corporation executives during the last century. Don't know how many corporations are now doing it but it's growing to an even larger number. Some who do include Merck, Sears Roebuck and Company, Hewlett-Packard, Toys 'R' Us, United Technologies Corporation, Avon Products, Ingersoll-Rand, and Walgreen's.

Although instant runoff voting is not the same as cumulative voting, here is the sample instant runoff ballot if you live at the corner of Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco in today's city election

Dan makes some excellent points in his column above.

I first read about cumulative voting a few years ago, and, frankly, it took a little while to get my head around the concept. The idea of cumulative voting seemed a little too weird and confusing---sort of like the bizarre proportional formulas the Italians use in their elections. Their parliament often ends up fractured by too many marginal parties with extreme ideologies (both right and left). Not a very appealing model.

But the more I hear about cumulative voting, the more intrigued I am. It seems to me that this process could address the concerns of minorities (like Northern Orange Republicans) without ghettoizing the county into districts.

An idea worthy of more consideration by the powers that be.

Does anyone know if cumulative - or any other kind of proportional representation - is legal in North Carolina?

In other words, do we have to convince just the county commissioners or them AND the legislature?


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