Alternatives to plurality voting: Cumulative voting

Cumulative voting is similar to at-large voting, but with a twist to make elections fairer.

In most elections in the U.S., the winner is decided by plurality voting. That is, whoever gets the most votes wins, regardless of whether or not they win a majority of votes (at least 50 percent +1). There are other methods of selecting elected officials that are used in parts of the U.S., mostly at the local level. These methods seek to better represent the will of the voters and give voters different choices in electing their representatives. This is the third article in a series examining some of those methods. Previous articles have examined:

The previous article in this series discussed at-large elections and pointed out that critics of this method of elections argue that it allows 50 percent of the voters to determine 100 percent of the seats up for election, creating a system that is unfair to political and ethnic minorities.

Cumulative voting addresses this by allowing voters in at-large elections to allocate their votes however they decide. Each voter still receives as many votes as there are seats, but can cast multiple votes for the same candidate. In a typical at-large election, if there are three open seats, voters may cast a vote for up to three candidates. In a cumulative voting election, each voter has three votes, which they can cast all for the same candidate, or they may spread across multiple candidates.

This system addresses the biggest problem with at-large voting, that it is unfair to minority groups. Under cumulative voting, minority groups, whether political minority, racial minority, or otherwise, can work together to ensure that a candidate that represents them is elected.

Cumulative voting was used to elect the Illinois state legislature from 1870 to 1980. Though not common, there are communities in the U.S. that use cumulative voting. Some of these have adopted it as result of court rulings which found that their old systems limited the collective ability of minority groups to elect a candidate, thus violating the federal Voting Rights Act. Port Chester, NY, Amarillo, TX, Chilton County, AL, and Peoria, IL are among those that use cumulative voting.

Of the election systems reviewed so far, which do you think is the most fair? Which is easiest for voters to understand? Should your community review how it chooses its elected officials?

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on Government and Public Policy provide various training programs, which are available to be presented in your county. Contact your local Government and Public Policy educator for more information. 

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