Monday, July 30, 2007

Cumulative Distraction

The storm over the cumulative voting idea coming out of Charter Committee is unfortunate. Now obviously, I thought the idea had merit, or I would not have passed it along. We really didn't go off and lose our minds entirely. Among the supporting documents were a thirty page article from Hispanic Law Review, another by Lani Guanier, both extolling the virtues of cumulative voting for minority voters and candidates. Having put that out there, if the resistance by Council and voter is as great as it appears to be, I will lose no sleep if the item fails. It was one of the last two items our Committee acted on, and far from the top of my agenda in importance

On other matters, we are being second guessed also as to putting the appointed police chief back up when it has been so recently defeated. We saw this coming, in fact at the Council meeting creating the Committee, long before I had any notion I would be on it, I addressed Council on just this, explaining that while I would not be the one to bring it before the Committee, someone doubtless would. I recall that led Councilman Morrison to comment, "That's twelve" (items that is).

When our Committee found itself listening to Chief Vasquez, his sole announced opponent and a petition representing both police organizations signed by a majority of serving officers, all declaring the election process was tearing apart the force, it was terrible for morale, that is no longer a possibility, it is a self-evident truth. Realistically, the vote of two years past doesn't strike me as compelling. The measure was put on ballot by Monte Mahon for reasons having nothing to do with the measure itself, if after putting it there, Mahon said a mumbling word in public supprt of it, I didn't hear it. Matt Lewis and Rudy Izzard jumped in and tried to support it, but too little, too late. When one has the people who do the job complaining that elections make the job harder, that is hard to ignore. It would have been like a doctor telling a patient, "No you don't have that headache, you just think you have a headache."

I wasn't eagar to revisit the topic this soon, but I wasn't willing to look these guys in the eye and tell them their headache was all in their head. At the same time we agreed to put their request before Council, we advised them that politically this was going to require a lot of educational effort on their part if it were to have a chance, they claimed to be willing to do the work. All I ask on this one, voters, if you hear the officers making their case, open your minds, be aware, these are the guys who would know telling you they have a problem. Not just management, as far as we could tell, top to bottom of the force, and we heard not one voice from the force supportive of electing the Chief.

One of my pets predicted to be controversial; compensation for Council. On this one, we hardly set the pay at a level which will tempt people to toss over lucrative careers, but it just might be the difference that makes it possible for a good working class guy to serve without breaking the family budget. As best we can tell, the current pay, to use the term loosely, was set in 1913. Come on voters, most of us have had a raise since then.

Mostly, I do not want any one item to taint the Committee's whole work. Most of what we did was overdue housekeeping. It makes for a lot of ballot items because election law insists we put every change out separately. Council will determine the final ballot content and language. In fact, Council is perfectly free to scrap us entirely and pass its own agenda, or none at all. We hope not, but I throw that in to remind, we are not some power-grabbing clique, we are not given that authority if we wanted to be.

We might ought to have done a more agressive job of keeping everybody up to speed, I did forward my sponsor meeting minutes as we went along. Unfortunately, our meetings got zero press, until the last meeting, and that was the meeting the cumulative voting hot potato came along.

Council will get this from us formally on Aug. 7, they will have until Sept. 5 to decide how much of it the voters get to look at. Between now and the actual election in Nov. there will be a lot of time to listen, learn, and decide. If it seems like a large plateful, we really didn't intend to get overly ambitious, but this job hadn't been done in 30 years.


  1. Jim - I don't think this was quite as insignificant as you make it here. Are you saying everyone else is wrong to have had the reaction to this that they did? I would have expected you to be among the first to realize that anyone can compile a few reports from the right "experts" to make anything look good. Motivation is key here. Where is the supporting info from the "experts" on the other side of the fence?

    BTW: Your reference page link doesn't seem to be working

  2. Allie, I am not saying this vote was insignificant, nor am I trying to distance myself from it. I am saying, in context, yes I support the measure, but amongst the plate full, it was not of first tier importance to me.

    We did not "shop" for favorable experts, remember at the time we were trolling the web, both JWT and I were still very skeptical of the proposal, we definitely weren't targeting supportive documents. If anything, the opposite.

    More complex is the question, "Are you saying everyone else is wrong...?" I resist being backed into a black/white, no nuances position. More questions than not have a spectrum of opinions with legitimate validity.

    Historically, true "at-large" voting was a reform brought in to cure the ills of ward voting, which had given us the likes of Tammany Hall or old Chicago. Then at-large elections came to be used to exclude minorities from effective representation, so we saw a return to single-member districts, only now including designated minority districts.

    Inevitably, the people in charge of redistricting learned to "pack" minority districts, so yes, you get a few minority faces in a couple of districts, but by packing minorities into gerrymandered districts, those faces were consigned to the ethnically designed districts, and minority vote greatly diluted in the "regular" districts.

    As JWT pointed out, no voting system is perfect. I found cumulative voting to have enough merit to be worth putting on the table. I did not decide this lightly, nor in consideration of any quid pro quo. If anything, I walked into supporting it fully aware it would be a long shot in either Council or among voters.

  3. Still, no one cares to address the question: "why?" Why was this change being pursued?

    For the benefit of the minority voters? Apparently they didn't think so...

    If the primary motivation was not for the benefit of the minority voter then what was? Was it just because the mayor's campaign treasurer wanted it that way?

    Monty Mahon was ousted and and replaced with the mayor's pick. With a cumulative voting system be sure that we can effectively and more easily see this accomplished with every seat in the council.

    This is not good ... regardless of who your favorite candidates are.

    Jim, you said you were the last to be persuaded to vote for this. As a panel appointed to review aspects of the charter, in deliberations, should it have been a matter of the chairman CONVINCING everyone to vote in favor of bringing the issue of cumulative voting to the council? Should it have been a matter of the chairman (who by profession is quite skilled at the art of persuasion) coercing unanimous votes on every measure? Was it the role of the chair to CONVINCE the other members to vote in favor of a list of proposed changes to the charter?

    I'm not saying that it was - I am asking, because that's what it sounds like when you say "I was the last to be convinced."

    Also, I'm waiting for the "why"? Minorities already have 2 council seats, it's not like Amarillo where they never had a minority on the council.

  4. Two points, Allie. If I said I was the "last to be convinced", well, interesting bit of trivia. When I did say that in committee, I was promptly corrected by Ruby, who claimed that honor for herself. Also, as I tried to make clear, the "convincing" was not so much being swayed by a persuasive chair as being reluctantly persuaded by our own research once we started doing it. I promise you, JWT found at least as much, if not more, persuasive arguements than the chairman threw at us.

    As to "why", as an election judge and worker, I have been through the sometimes downright embarrassing process of recounts, contested runoffs, court suits, and two week long recounts with literally international headlines. I have involved myself in attempts to reform the smelly process of redistricting, state and local.

    As currently rendered, redistricting with the view of creating minority districts is theoretically a process intended to correct institutionalized racism by a process that is inherently racially divisive itself. What I came to see after looking at places where cumulative voting has been used, was that in practice, it essentially put what we try to achieve by redistricting back in the "open market" of voters and made it more difficult for an elite to shape districts favoring the power structure in charge of the redistricting process.

    One of the comments against cumulative on the S-T site was that in theory, all six councilmen could then be elected from a five block square geographical area. Unlikely, but possible. Look at the district map we now have, Take out SMD 6 and the same thing can be said of what we have. While western SMDs 5 and 6 are compact, SMDs 1 and 2 are sprawling, crook-necked, block-by-block ethnicly selective districts which remind one of the salamander referred to in the original "Gerrymander" political cartoon of two centuries ago.

    Render this into local reality; under cumulative voting, I would finally be allowed to cast one or two votes for Dwain Morrison without moving across town. Any system imaginable will be "gamed" by those seeking power. In my opinion, cumulative opens that game to the common voter, no need to finagle one's way on to the redistricting board.

  5. Democracy is hard. Why dont we just get rid of it all together. Then the powers behind the scenes will not have to deal with those pesky people sometimes known as voters.

  6. Democracy is easy. Having a Democracy that doesn't degenerate into 2 wolves and a sheep deciding on dinner is not easy. One of the main goals of the constitution was to prevent a tyranny of the majority. The move from at large to single member districts was originally driven by the same goal.

    Cumulative voting is another method of protecting the rights of minority voters independent of geography.

  7. Jim R,

    Would you say that the "districting" for the States should be eliminated as well? Why not just eliminate that arrangement as well and go for cumulative elections state wide? Or do you see some benefit there? I don't think that system was set up to correct institutionalized racism. Its arrangement was arduously conceived as the best means to elect representation "for the people." What we have with city districts affords the same merits, on a smaller scale, that the state districts achieve. Redistricting can be a bitch, as can the recounts (which you are still going to have to deal with) but I think it's worth the effort... Unless of course, you do not believe "the people" are fit to know what's best.

    Jim T,

    I am still amazed that you fail to see that the "tyranny of the majority" will be more precise with cumulative voting.

  8. Allie, I don't regard cumulative voting as a panacea. There are some situations (primarily partisan races and overly large areas,too many candidates to keep track of) where it works very poorly. For example, Illinois had problems with parties limiting the number of candidates that would run in an attempt to game the system. We don't have those factors here.

    As far as the "Tyranny of the Majority" being more "precise", I'm not sure how precise fits into this context. If you mean it's more likely to happen then under an SMD system, that is not what my research shows.

    If you mean there is a strategy where the majority can lock out the minority, then that is not supported either by theory (which "assumes" rational voters voting a rational strategy) or by the real world studies and research I have found so far.

    If you mean that those in power can more easily pick their token minority candidate, that is a legitimate concern but power and money can usually find a malleable candidate with little trouble anywhere they desire. How much influence does power and money have in the redistricting that happens every 10 years or so?

    Still don't see this fits the definition of precise.

  9. JWT,

    You are still only saying that no system is perfect. True. But, what I am interested in is this: If there are sharks in the water, or wolves at the table (which we must assume there are and always will be) which would be easier to take advantage of: cumulative system or single member districts?

    Ultimately, maybe it doesn't matter if one pack of wolves give the sheep option A and another pack gives them option B. Still, no one has addressed motivation. Jim, you have given some reasons from your perspective as an election judge and some other historical anecdotes for why this looks good to you, but this only indirectly addresses the question. You did not bring this to the table. In you opinion, what was the motivation to put it on the table? Moreover, how were these 24 revisions conceived, particularly this one?

    I won't quibble with you over semantics, precise still sounds good to me ...