Considering the role that Florida’s electoral mess played in making him president, and considering his active disinterest in reforming political processes to assure that the Florida fiasco will never be repeated, George W. Bush is not widely regarded as a pioneering proponent of moves to make American democracy more fair and representative.
Yet, an obscure Texas law that then-Governor Bush signed in 1995 is transforming the electoral landscape in Texas for the better. In fact, a recent vote in Amarillo suggests that it is breaking the grip of Bush’s allies in the business community that has for so long dominated Texas electioneering.
The reform that Bush inked with little fanfare seven years ago made it easier for local school districts across Texas to create cumulative voting systems.
Traditionally in Texas, school board members were elected using standard winner-take-all, at-large systems where voters are limited to casting one vote for each candidate. The system made it easy for majority racial or ethnic groups in a district to dominate the balloting. Thus, school districts with substantial minority populations continued to be governed by all-white boards.
Under cumulative systems, voters are allowed to cast as many votes as there are seats. They can distribute the votes among various contenders or assign them all to one candidate. This, as Harvard professor Lani Guinier has noted, makes it possible for members of minority groups to focus their voting on electing members of their own communities and bringing diversity to elected boards.
Since 1995, groups seeking to increase minority representation on local school boards in Texas have regularly pressed Voting Rights Act challenges seeking to upset winner-take-all, at-large systems. In a growing number of cases they have, in settling their legal actions, opted for cumulative voting as a vehicle to achieve better balance on boards. At least 57 Texas communities have adopted cumulative voting systems, according to the Maryland-based Center for Voting and Democracy. And there is growing enthusiasm regarding the reform among voting rights activists with the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“Cumulative voting allows minority groups to elect their preferred candidate in an at-large election system,” said Nina Perales, staff attorney for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “It does work. If voters understand the system, it works very well.”