Cumulative voting might be worth trying…

… but it’s not a complete cure to extremism in politics.

Michael Rodgers made a reference to Cindi Scoppe’s column earlier in the week advocating cumulative voting as a cure to the extremism that single-member districts tend to foster.

The problem is this: Lawmakers draw safe districts for themselves — or rather, for members of their own party. They draw them so safe that the general election becomes meaningless. The primary of the dominant party becomes the election. That puts the loudest, most passionate elements in that one party in the driver’s seat. From that point on, representatives who want to get elected are constantly kowtowing to the more extreme elements in their own party, and couldn’t care less about what moderates in their own party, or independents, and certainly not members of the opposition, want them to do.

And so we get entire bodies of elected officials — Congress being the most extreme example of the sickness — who are there not for the good of the country, but as agents of the most extreme elements in their respective parties. Instead of a deliberative process, you get a perpetual mudball fight, and government becomes dysfunctional.

(Cindi traces the problem back to the race-based districting that was the unintended consequence of the Voting Rights Act. That, too, is a problem, in that it trains representatives to think of themselves as representing only constituents of a particular race. Which can indeed lead to a type of extremism, and has done so in South Carolina. But a system in which drawing districts to protect incumbency is allowed by the courts is a broader problem. In any case, when legislators go through the process of choosing their constituents, which is what redistricting has become, they do both of those things — choose by race and by party.)

Cindi has long favored a creative solution to the problem:

The key is to return to multi-member districts — the norm before the Voting Rights Act essentially outlawed them because they shut out minority voters — but with a twist that prevents the dilution of minority voting strength while reclaiming the centrist, community-focused effect of the old multi-member districts.

Let’s take the Richland County Council for an example of how this would work. Under cumulative voting, candidates for all 11 council seats would run countywide. Voters would get 11 votes, like they did in the old multi-member districts. But they could divide the votes any way they wanted — casting one in each race, giving all 11 votes to a single candidate or doling them out in any other combination. Under a modified version called limited-transfer voting, voters would have just one vote, to cast in whichever race was most important to them. In other words, voters could work together across the county to essentially create the “district” they lived in.

It wouldn’t be practical to have statewide races for legislative seats, but we could make Richland County a four-seat Senate district, Lexington County a seven-seat House district. We could even make Richland and Lexington county an eight-seat Senate district.

These modified proportional systems have been promoted for years as a way to stop fixating on race in our elections and our government, but they also would empower all voters and give us a greater sense of ownership in our government, because elected officials wouldn’t dare to write off those they consider the partisan or racial or ideological minority in their district. The fact that county residents could vote for incumbents or challengers for any or all of the seven House seats in Lexington County means the representatives would need to appeal to all of them….

I’ve always thought the solution sounded a bit confusing. But I think it would be worth trying.

That said, cumulative voting would not solve all of our problems with extremism in SC. It would do nothing, directly, to address one of the examples Cindi cites in her column:

A Theatre de l’Absurde production starring a U.S. senator who could easily win a general election, no matter who his opponent, being seriously challenged in his party primary by obscure opponents who can most charitably be called political outliers…

Even without districts of any kind, radicalism has long been a feature of SC politics. The only cure for Lindsey Graham’s problem would be a reform that would have little chance of being enacted: Repeal the 17th Amendment, and have U.S. senators elected by the Legislatures again, as the Framers intended (House members were supposed to be elected by the people; senators were supposed to represent states, not bodies of voters). But of course, that would only work reliably after you do something to make the Legislature more moderate — something like what Cindi suggests.

41 thoughts on “Cumulative voting might be worth trying…

  1. Doug Ross

    ” Voters would get 11 votes, like they did in the old multi-member districts. But they could divide the votes any way they wanted — casting one in each race, giving all 11 votes to a single candidate or doling them out in any other combination. ”

    If you think Richland County screwed up the last big election, just wait til they have to implement this idea.

    The “low information” (i.e. stupid) voters would be spending half a day in the ballot box trying to figure this out. A large number of them may not be able to COUNT to 11 without taking off a shoe.

    At least with term limits, we’d see some real challengers every decade.

    1. Michael Rodgers

      That’s it exactly! Stupid people cause us all kinds of problems and take way too much of our money. My solution to this problem is the same as yours, term limits.

  2. Bryan Caskey

    That’s WAY too complicated. You think the lines for voting are long now? Try telling someone that they have 11 votes, to divvy up between 11 candidates as they see fit.

    Just re-draw the lines.

    But since we’re spinning hypotheticals out on a Friday, I’ll toss one out there: How about you get a living wage and basic services given to you from a combination of the state and federal government. You’ll be taken care of with everything you need on a basic level. However, you have to give up one thing in return – your vote.

    You can become a member of the living wage crowd, living off the government without being a productive member of society – permanently. You just don’t get to participate in electing anyone.

    Now, I know that no one here would take that offer. But, do you think *anyone* would? If so, how many people? And what effects would it have on the policies we put in place?

    1. Michael Rodgers

      I think you perhaps are missing the concept in your toss out of a hypothetical: They’re supposed to be conversation starters, not conversation stoppers.

  3. Kathryn Fenner

    It used to be done that way, and my mathematician friends think it is a great idea, but I guess I am not much of a gamesman. If you like the current system, just put all your votes on one candidate, I guess.

  4. Juan Caruso

    Cumulative voting has historically been rejected for reasons Bryan suggests:

    Also, sumulative voting promoter Cindi Ross Scoppe currently seems a desperate, unpublished (aside from a news rag) non-entity! Where is cindi’s bio, Brad? Why is it well-hidden? Some can only guess about your favorite “editor”.

    I would say she is desperate, her cumulative voting plea is an act of desperation, and the writing is on the wall.

    Yet, you will probably disagree in 12 paragraphs of nonsensical blather.

    Prove me wrong; cite all of Cindi’s credentials and make some sense!

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Which link just explains, but does not “reject” it at all. Quite the contrary. It explicitly takes no position on it.

        1. Juan Caruso

          KF, I agree with you about the link taking no position on cumulative voting.

          My main objection was with the absence of meaningful credentials for Cindi Scoppe (okay, she is a progressive white woman from a wealthy family, excuse me in advance).

          Beyond my agreement with Bryan’s assertion (“That’s WAY too complicated”), let me amplify my objection with a quote from lawyer in a Chicago law firm:

          “In the United States, a bicameral legislature and a separation of powers, especially the power of the judiciary, are generally thought to be sufficient to protect the rights and interests of the minority.” – Richard Magnone, Reda | Ciprian | Magnone, LLC

          Perhaps cumulative voting proponents like Cindi S. will support the notion that our bicameral legislature and 3-way separation of powers have actually failed the rights and interests of the minority.

          You will not be holding your breath for that either, we suppose.

          1. bud

            Juan, I often disagree with Cindi but I respect her credentials. You need to stop with the cheap shots it’s pretty offensive. Personally if I was Brad I would have deleted this post.

          2. Brad Warthen Post author

            Juan, you’re confusing me. Cindi’s credentials are in her body of work. They’re in the paper every day. It’s a massive record dating from the mid-80s to today. Ask anyone who follows SC politics — in the State House, among academics, wherever you like — to name anyone writing today who understands politics and government in this state better than she does. They’re likely to come up empty.

            Cindi doesn’t say that “our bicameral legislature and 3-way separation of powers have actually failed the rights and interests of the minority” because that’s not the case. She told you what happened — the single-member districts that came out of the Voting Rights Act helped create the problem she’s describing, as did legal precedents allowing districts to be drawn to protect incumbency, combined with powerful algorithms making it easier than ever for elected officials to choose their constituents instead of the other way around.

            And you’re right that she’s a white woman. Progressive? Perhaps in the sense of being a reformer, but most definitely not in the sense of being liberal, as the word is currently used. She is solidly center-right.

            And “from a wealthy family”? She grew up on a tobacco farm in North Carolina. She worked so hard there growing up that she never wanted to see a tobacco leaf again. I’ve never heard anything indicating “wealth” in her upbringing.

          3. Doug Ross

            “She is solidly center-right.”

            Really? That characterization of her politics would never have entered my mind… Unless the center is Karl Marx.

            What issues does she fall into the “right” side of center? Not guns, not gays, not smaller government, not taxes…

            As far as I can tell, she is cut from the same “let the government handle it” cloth as you are.

          4. Brad Warthen Post author

            Doug, on the issues you mention, Cindi would only be left of center — in the cockeyed way that “left” and “right” are currently defined — on guns. In the sense of being inclined toward greater regulation of firearms.

            Everything else, and she’d be either in the center or on the conservative end of the spectrum.

          5. Doug Ross

            @Brad – you think she’s near the center because you think you’re near the center. Each of us thinks our views are more centered than they really are.

            Heck, I could call myself a centrist. I am far right on the fiscal issues and far left on the social issues. On average, I’m middle of the road. So is Cindi to the right of me?

          6. Brad Warthen Post author

            Doug, I’m going to pay you a great compliment and say that you are sufficiently idiosyncratic that it’s unfair to put you in a particular spot on the left-right spectrum as it is popularly defined.

            Actually, it’s unfair to Cindi, too. But if you force me to place her anywhere, it would be center-right.

            I basically hate to speak in those terms about people I respect, because I think the way we popularly define left and right is so foolish. But when you force the matter, and I have to put someone somewhere — or if you’re claiming that someone fits on a portion of the spectrum that is definitely inaccurate — I’ll speak up.

            Here’s an anecdote illustrating my point about Cindi. Fred Mott is possibly the most conservative publisher I ever worked for. The usual pattern for publishers is to be socially liberal, fiscally conservative. Fred was conservative about everything. (Fred is the main reason I lost the argument in 2000, and we endorsed George Bush instead of John McCain.)

            One day in the early 2000s, we were making a decision about bringing someone onto the editorial board. I forget who it was now. Anyway, Fred got to talking about the need to strike a proper balance on the board. And he rather casually categorized everyone on the board as fitting in certain places on the left-right spectrum.

            I sort of winced at that, because I don’t like putting people into such boxes. But I couldn’t argue with where he placed the people. If you were going to do it, you couldn’t have done it better than he did.

            He didn’t just place people with words; described the spectrum with his hands, chopping down onto the conference table in front of him, showing where he would place each person.

            First, he chopped way out to the right, and said “This is me.” No argument there. Then he moved a little towards the middle, and said, “This is Cindi,” firmly placing her as the next most conservative member. Which was accurate.

            Then, “Here’s Brad” — closer to the middle, but still just on the right side of it. I winced again, hating to be categorized, but relatively speaking, yeah. I wasn’t as conservative as either of them.

            Then he placed Warren, close to the center like me, but slightly to the left of it. Then he placed someone else who was on the board then — I forget whether it was Claudia Brinson or Nina Brook at the time.

            Then, he chopped down well to the left of center, and said that was John Monk.

            John never got over that. He protested to me many times over Fred placing him there, saying it just wasn’t so, right up until he transferred from editorial to news (where his personal views didn’t matter, John being a thorough professional).

            But, to the extent that it was fair to peg him anywhere, Fred had him pegged right. And to the extent any of us could be categorized that way, he got us all right…

          7. Brad Warthen Post author

            I can think of one issue, aside from the guns thing, where maybe you could place Cindi left of center, as that is popularly defined — abortion. She’s pro-choice.

            But that had no effect on her work on the board. We were pretty sharply divided on the issue, and therefore didn’t address it editorially the whole time I was editor. Cindi wasn’t with me on abortion, but she was completely with me on the pointlessness of wasting our energy fighting over Kulturkampf issues when there were so many other issues, of more burning urgency in South Carolina, that we agreed completely on.

        2. Juan Caruso

          Michael Rogers, you say, “You’re not making any sense and your insult of Cindi Scoppe’s biography is unacceptable., ”

          How can you accuse me of either? Did you not understand the simple and succinct quote from a Chicago lawyer’?

          In case you failed to read correctly what I actually said, it is the apparent ABSENCE of Cindi Scoppe’s biography which I criticize. Kindly point me to a link presenting her bio. I am sure some other readers will be at least as interested in what it fails to say, as I.

          1. Kathryn Fenner

            What difference does her bio make to the strength of her arguments? Look up ad hominem fallacy

          2. Juan Caruso

            Michael Rogers, said, to Juamn Caruso, ““You’re not making any sense and your insult of Cindi Scoppe’s biography is unacceptable.”.

            Well, Michaele, I criticized the absence of her biography and asked you pointedly for a link, after your attack of my criticism of her bio.

            Have you found a link to one that existed at the time of my remark that it was missing?

            You seem suddenly silent; good!

        3. Juan Caruso

          “What difference does her bio make to the strength of her arguments? Look up ad hominem fallacy” Kathryn Fenner

          KF, the difference is merely wether C. Scoppe’s position of public influence is well-deserved or pedestrian: like yours and mine, for instance. Hillary “what difference does it make” Clinton is going to find out, too.

          1. Mab

            Re: “… w[h]ether C. Scoppe’s position of public influence is well-deserved or pedestrian…”

            It is leashable. A leashable position of public influence. Gawd Almighty — she even has a husband to support her. She is not destitute of upkeep — just moral fortitude, perhaps. >Why they kept her<

          2. Kathryn Fenner

            Hillary Rodham Clinton has an impressive CV separate from her husband’s. Why would her husband’s peccadilloes have a worse impact on her electability than they did on her (easily re-elected) husband’s?

            and Cindi isn’t running for office…

  5. CJWatson

    Sometimes I’d like to vote NONE OF THE ABOVE. It would also be nice if a majority NO vote for a particular candidate would bar that person from running again.

  6. Norm Ivey

    Under a modified version called limited-transfer voting, voters would have just one vote, to cast in whichever race was most important to them.

    I think Cindi’s argument is that each voter should have one vote to assign to one candidate, but once that candidate reaches a winning threshold, the vote is transferred to a second or third choice candidate. Seems complicated–perhaps too complicated, but not as complicated as distributing 11 votes among a couple dozen candidates.

    I’ve linked this before, but has a solution to South Carolina’s Congressional district problem that seems fairly simple. I think a similar multi-member district approach could be worked out for the state legislature as well.

    Of course, since the people who have the power to make these changes are the same people who will lose power if the changes are made, then I doubt any changes will ever occur.

  7. Harry Harris

    There is no “cure” for the legislative and governance issues in a polarized society. There two approaches that I think will help. Mandated redistricting commissions that are appointed and overseen by the courts and reported-on by an aware and fair set of news professionals is one. The second is ever harder to attain. Strong civics education, emphasizing a sense of citizenship and community carried on by schools and religious organizations. Social studies in our schools is mostly a second thought, and in South Carolina consists mainly of history beyond grade 2 (in the “tested” grades), and students are mostly bored to a stupor with it. In a society that has become almost wholely materialistic with a strong sexual and “looks” obsession, even most of our churches have little courage to incorporate a strong citizenship and community message outside of praying for warriors and war outcomes and social outreach ministries manned and supported by a few among their membership. We’ve become very insular and balkanized. Thank God (literally) for the new Pope.

    Schemes like cumulative voting would likely produce mainly what we have now – polarization, and power to the extremes, including politicians, voters, and deep-pocket funders.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      If we could teach history and social studies without meddling from the theocrats, a la Mike Fair and evolution….

  8. der deutscher Flußgabelunger

    Finally an issue I agree with Cindi on ( well kinda). I agree with her about the problem (single-member districts using winner-take-all voting), but her solution (cumulative voting) is problematic. She is totally correct in pointing out our screwed up first-past-the-post voting is. Not only does it leave large numbers of voters without desired representation i.e. wasted votes, but it is also an easy system to game i.e. gerrymandering.

    Cumulative voting like first-past-the-post voting is capable of creating significant numbers of wasted votes and depending on the magnitude of the electoral district (which in the example Cindi cited of the Illinois House of Representatives was just three members per district) it is still susceptible to gerrymandering.

    An actual form of proportional representational voting would be way better. I much prefer Mixed Member Voting, which is used in Germany and New Zealand.

  9. der deutscher Flußgabelunger

    And what is up with this anti-17th Amendment sentiment? First the tea party and now you Brad.

    Here is a post in a blog written by political scientists explaining why state legislators don’t want to be in charge of electing US senators.

    Would you, as a manager within a large company, want to be held accountable for the actions of an employee you only get the opportunity to fire once every six years? And where depending on your position in the company you yourself may face two or three job performance evaluations before being able to fire that employee?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      This isn’t new. I’ve long had my doubts about the 17th Amendment.

      To answer your question: “Would you, as a manager within a large company, want to be held accountable for the actions of an employee you only get the opportunity to fire once every six years?”…

      The Framers didn’t intend for senators to be the “employees” of the general electorate — at least, not directly. In their vision, the people would be more like shareholders. Members of the House represent masses of people, and are supposed to be responsive to those people. And they are. They twitch constantly in resonance to vibrations in the Zeitgeist. Senators represent states. This is the grand compromise — the House for the big, populous states, balanced by the Senate for the small, or less-populated, states.

      It’s part of the general plan for having each segment of the government answer to different constituencies, as an important element in checks and balances.

  10. bud

    What Cindi and Brad consistently miss on this is the simple fact that SC voters are completely inept at ascertaining what is their own best interests in the voting process. Just go back to 1860 to get a bit of perspective. White, rural voters in SC went to war to die for a cause that really didn’t affect them, slavery. And they continue to vote against their own best interests. As long as the plutocrats can fool the gullible into voting for their idiotic agenda there really isn’t much hope for any real progress in this state. Sure we can shuffle the deck but in the end the gentried class will always prevail. Sad but true.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I noted that above, Bud. Maybe I put it too politely: “radicalism has long been a feature of SC politics.”

      Maybe you’d like it better if I put it some other way. How about, “There’s a strong streak of crazy running through the white SC electorate.” Exhibit A, of course, would be what you mentioned, the Unpleasantness that resulted from our unfortunate tantrum in 1860.

        1. Doug Ross

          There you go with the condescension toward libertarians again… regardless of the fact that we don’t have anything close to a libertarian in any position of power in this state… Haley isn’t one. And the State House (which is the only controlling body in this state) is filled with people who never met a tax they didn’t like.

          The problem is RINO’s. Leatherman, Harrell, Fair, and the rest of that ilk.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            If those are the people you have a problem with, the term is “regular Republicans,” not “RINOs.”

            Fair is kind of a cultural, Religious Right kind of Republican; the other two are more of the traditional pro-business type…

  11. Ralph Hightower

    The General Assembly needs to stop gerrymandering districts in to Republican districts, Democrat districts, white districts and black districts. But that won’t happen because those in power want to remain in power and will do all they can to remain in power.

    As the great philosopher, Pogo, once said “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

  12. Karen Pearson

    I am ready to mandate that they lay down a grid. If there are too few in any one spot, combine 2 adjacent ones or use a mathematical formula to expand the square. But odd shapes and and such are out.

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