Cumulative Voting vs. Gerrymander

April 18, 1994

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said in an opinion of the Supreme Court last year that voting rights cases involving "the propriety of race-based [efforts] designed to benefit members of historically disadvantaged racial minority groups" are among "the most complex and sensitive" courts have to resolve. Things just got more complex and sensitive: U.S. District Court Judge Joseph H. Young ruled last week that Worcester County must use the cumulative voting method to benefit blacks in county commission elections.

In the dozen years since Congress amended the Voting Rights Act to require states to give blacks an "equal" opportunity to elect one of their own to office, a number of electoral schemes have been changed in places with a Southern political flavor, including the Eastern Shore, leading to the election of blacks to office. Usually this meant replacing countywide voting with smaller election districts, including one or more with a majority black population.

But Worcester opposed all such proposals. It said countywide voting was its tradition. It is. So is Jim Crow and before that slavery. In such a county that is also 79 percent white, every election -- to no one's surprise -- produced only white victors.

Judge Young rejected countywide voting last January and asked the county and blacks suing it to offer more appropriate ideas. He volunteered interest in cumulative voting. The commissioners offered nothing new. The black plaintiffs offered a cumulative voting plan and a racial gerrymander similar to one in the North Carolina case that prompted Justice O'Connor's "complex and sensitive" remark. She said for the court in that case that such racial gerrymandering is unsavory and constitutionally suspect and told North Carolina to take another look.

Perhaps Judge Young had that in mind when he opted for the cumulative voting plan in Worcester. Under it, each voter gets five votes, as in countywide voting, but can cast all five for one candidate. If all blacks choose to cast all five for a single black candidate, that candidate could not lose.

Judge Young expressed his view that "since no group receives special treatment at the expense of others," this method is less racially polarizing than a race-based district.

We doubt that. Cumulative voting may even be more racially polarizing. It will encourage all blacks in the county to vote only for a black candidate, and all whites to vote only for white ones. This will lead black campaigners to ignore white voters and white campaigners to ignore black voters. At least in a majority-black district, black candidates would have to compete for white votes, and in majority-white districts, white candidates would have to seek black votes.

This or a similar case is going to go before the Supreme Court. A Supreme Court that is uneasy with racial gerrymanders is not likely to be comfortable with race-motivated cumulative voting. But the court is probably going to have to indicate a preference for one over the other.

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