One Man, Six Votes: Port Chester Experiment Could Expand

New voting system produced a Hispanic candidate after years of futility

By JIM FITZGERALD
|  Friday, Jun 18, 2010  |  Updated 7:00 PM EDT
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One Man, Six Votes: Port Chester Experiment Could Expand

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The court-ordered election that allowed residents of one New York town to flip the lever six times for one candidate — and produced a Hispanic winner — could expand to other towns.

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The court-ordered election that allowed residents of one New York town to flip the lever six times for one candidate — and produced a Hispanic winner — could expand to other towns where minorities complain their voices aren't being heard.

But first, interested parties will want to take a look at the exit surveys.

The unusual election was imposed on Port Chester after a federal judge determined that Hispanics were being treated unfairly.

The 2010 Census is expected to show large increases in Latino populations and lawsuits alleging discrimination are likely to increase, said Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a nonprofit election research and reform group.

"The country's been changing in a lot of places, with minority growth in exurbs and commuter cities, and there will be a realization that those minorities can't elect candidates of choice," Richie said.

That will leave minority groups, federal prosecutors and municipalities looking for ways to keep elections from violating the federal Voting Rights Act, which protects minorities' constitutional right to equal protection under the law.

In Port Chester, trustees had been elected two at a time every two years, with conventional at-large voting. Most voters were white, and there were always six white trustees even though Hispanics made up half the population and nearly a quarter of the voters. Judge Stephen Robinson concluded the system violated U.S. law by diluting Hispanics' votes.

The standard remedy was to break a municipality into districts, with one district including many from the minority, thereby increasing the chances for a candidate backed by the minority group. The Justice Department proposed that solution for Port Chester.

But the village of about 30,000 objected to districts. It suggested instead a system called cumulative voting. All six trustees would be elected at once and the voters could apportion their six votes as they wished — all six to one candidate, one each to six candidates or any combination.

The system, which has been used in Alabama, Illinois, South Dakota and Texas, allows a political minority to gain representation if it organizes behind specific candidates. Judge Robinson went for it, and cumulative voting was used for the first time in a New York municipality.

Peruvian immigrant Luis Marino, 43, finished fourth, making him Port Chester's first Hispanic trustee.

"It helped me get elected," said Marino, a Democrat who works in maintenance at the Scarsdale schools. "I will be representing all the people of Port Chester, but I am aware that I can help Hispanics bring their concerns to the board."

Voters also elected a black trustee for the first time: Joseph Kenner, a Republican who was already on the board as an appointee.

The village said Friday that 3,278 residents voted, about 31 percent of those registered, a slightly higher turnout than usual. Hispanic turnout had not been analyzed, but Richie said about a quarter of all votes went to Hispanic candidates.

Marino's victory might prompt other judges to consider cumulative voting as a remedy.

"The way this election was implemented in Port Chester can be an example for other jurisdictions with similar problems," said Randolph McLaughlin, a lawyer who has represented plaintiffs in several voters' rights cases, including Port Chester's. He cautioned, however, that the success was not just due to the unusual election system, but "was the result of the work that went in before the election."

That work — an extensive voter education program — was the principal subject of exit surveys. The questions, in Spanish and English, weren't about whom they voted for but about how well they understood the system and what strategy they used in voting.

The survey also asked which of Port Chester's outreach programs — a website, radio and TV commercials, voter forums, handouts — were helpful.

Voter education was a requirement of the settlement, but Port Chester officials believe they went beyond their obligation.

"We put so much emphasis on education — we may have spent $100 a voter — because we knew it would be critical to success," said village spokesman Aldo Vitagliano. "We also know that the next community can point to Port Chester and say 'That's how it's done.'"

Two political science professors — David Kimball of the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Martha Knopf of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte — were hired to analyze the Port Chester data. Kimball said their report would take a few weeks.

"There's a very important issue here: Were voters comfortable? Did they understand how it works?" Kimball said. "Did they plump (give more than one vote to a candidate)? Did they know they could plump?"

Until there's a separate analysis of the votes, including who did well in Hispanic neighborhoods, it won't be known for sure if Marino was actually the preferred candidate of Latino voters.

"The election of a Hispanic candidate does not necessarily mean that a Hispanic-supported candidate was chosen," McLaughlin said. "But it's definitely a step forward."

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