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.”
In Amarillo, where a cumulative voting system was adopted in 1999 in order to settle a Voting Rights Act challenge, the reform does indeed seem to be working very well. From the late 1970s to the late 1990s, no minority candidates were elected to the Amarillo Independent School District board — despite the fact that close to 30 percent of the voting population, and 40 percent of the school-age population, is Hispanic or African American.
With the May, 2000, local school board election, Amarillo became the largest U.S. jurisdiction currently utilizing cumulative voting. And the system has worked precisely as local, state and national voting rights activists had hoped. In 2000, voters elected an African American and a Latina to the school board. And, last week, in the second Amarillo school board election held under the cumulative voting system, a second Latina candidate was elected — bringing minority representation on the school board to a record high level.
“The eyes of the minority voting rights community were focused on Amarillo. This election was seen by many as a test of the ability of cumulative voting to work for the minority community,” says Joleen Garcia, a Center for Voting and Democracy staffer who works in Texas to promote electoral alternatives. “For those who work for better election systems and fair representation, this was an important victory.”
In a five-way race for three school board seats, Janie Rivas was the sole minority candidate. A veteran community activist, Rivas finished second in voting that ousted an Anglo incumbent who was backed by Business In Our Schools (BIOS), a powerful local political group financed as its name suggests by business interests. According to political observers in Amarillo, Rivas was the first school board candidate to be elected in many years without a BIOS endorsement.
Rivas’ election means that the Amarillo Independent School District board is now made up of four Anglo members, two Latinas and one black representative.
A stark contrast to the dramatic progress in minority representation on the school board achieved under the cumulative voting system came in elections the same day for the local college board. Despite a big push to elect a Latino candidate, the college board vote under the old winner-take-all, at-large system produced three Anglo winners.
The evidence is mounting that real election reforms make a real difference. So far, however, there is little evidence that George W. Bush wants to make this Texas success story a national model.