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New York Village Vote Aims for Better Minority Representation

One small village in the northeast U.S. state of New York is making a big change in selecting its leaders after being charged with voting discrimination in 2006. The new cumulative voting system is intended to bring minorities into the government.

The government of Port Chester, New York is run by a six-person board of trustees elected by the residents of the city. But Mayor Dennis Pilla says in 2006 the U.S. Department of Justice put a halt to the city's elections because the voting system was not reflecting the needs of minority voters.

"It has been four years since Port Chester voters have been able to elect their trustees," said Mayor Pilla.

Mayor Pilla says there has never been a Latino trustee elected, even though ethnic Hispanics make up nearly 50 percent of the city's population.

"But they are not all citizens. They are not all registered to vote," he added.

It was also difficult recruiting Hispanic candidates for the board. So the city and the Department of Justice came up with a different election process to solve the discrepancy.

Organization FairVote helped come up with the innovative voting process. Executive Director Rob Ritchey explains the Port Chester system.

"In a traditional system everyone has one vote for each seat, so six votes to six seats, and they are limited to giving one vote per person and if there is a cohesive majority then all those voters vote one for each of their candidates and all of them win, and then relatively substantial numbers of voters can go and vote and not elect anyone. With cumulative voting you have a new option," said Ritchey.

Under the new process voters still have six votes, but they have the option to vote for a candidate more than once. Ritchey says residents can give two votes to one candidate and four to another or give all six votes to one candidate.

"The mathematics of cumulative voting work out that if a group in a six-seater race of about a sixth of the vote or so gives all their votes to one candidate that candidate will win one of six seats no matter what other voters do, so that it opens the door towards representation of parts of the community that would not otherwise elect someone," he added.

Cumulative voting gives Port Chester's Latinos the opportunity to elect at least one candidate to the board that reflects their values. This year three of the 13 candidates are Latino.

This type of voting has never before been used in New York State, and it is only the third time it has been used in the United States.

Initially, Mayor Pilla says, the community was resistant to the new system.

"Upfront, there were a large number of people in the village that sat there and thought the system was being forced on us and rammed down our throats, and why do we have to change," he explained.

But Pilla thinks tension eased over time as the town became familiar with the new system.

Columbia University Professor Rodolfo de la Garza says a successful change in voting process for this one village could lead to wider use of cumulative voting, especially as a remedy for discrimination.
"It reflects the fact that voter discrimination, however indirect it may be, it is not explicit necessarily, continues to exists," explained Professor de la Garza.

De La Garza says the new electoral process will mark a big change for Latinos in Port Chester.

"It is symbolic," he added. "They want to have a voice. I am sure they are hard working members of that community, overwhelmingly. There are some derelicts of course, but overwhelmingly they are trying to make it in America and [now] they have access."

And it looks like they have, election results show at least one of the six officials elected to the board, Luis Marino, is Latino.