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New York City Community School Board elections.

The Center for Voting and Democracy recently analyzed elections to the 32 Community School Board districts in New York City, contrasting voting age population from the 1990 census with the race and ethnicity of winning candidates in these districts. Although these elections are much maligned and indeed could be improved, this analysis provided good evidence of how well the preference voting system of proportional voting can work, even in very complex, multi-racial electorates.

Each school district has nine seats and elections take place every three years, using preference voting (e.g, single transferable vote). The elections have relatively low turnout (12 percent in 1995) in large part because the only offices on the ballot in May are ones many people know little about.

The threshold of representation for one seat is just over 10 percent, meaning that every 10 percent increment can result in another seat. Thus, in the following analysis a group having 25 percent should be able to elect at least two candidates of choice. One that is 31 percent should be able to elect three. The analysis reflects an assumption that candidates of different races and ethnicities will prefer candidates of their own race/ethnicity - which in reality may be less true in these elections than others, as the ideological dynamics of "slate voting" (in which voters may rank candidates more on philosophical grounds than race/ethnicity) are quite important. Nonetheless, voting by race/ethnicity is a helpful measure.


* African-American: Blacks are elected at least in proportion to their voting age population in 28 of the 32 districts. There also are more blacks elected than their voting age population would warrant in several districts. The boards city wide are 32.2 percent black while the city wide black voting age population is only 23.5 percent.

* Asians: Asians are elected in proportion to their voting age population in 30 of 32 districts. Much smaller numbers than black voters, Asian voters do not make up 20 percent of voting age population in any school district in the city, yet Asians have at least one seat in 7 districts.

* Latinos: The results are less favorable for Latinos, although they are almost always "short" by only one seat. Latinos are under-represented in 19 of 32 school districts. Of these districts. 16 are ones in which the number of elected Latinos is one seat short of what their voting age population (VAP) would warrant (e.g., two seats in a district that is 31 percent Latino (VAP). Latinos have at least one seat in 16 districts, more than one seat in 11 districts and at least one seat in districts that are at least 16 percent Latino in every district except District 24. There Latinos comprise 28 percent of the voting age population but have no seats (District 24 is rather infamous for having a classic machine operation).

* Whites: Whites win at least a proportionate of seats in 29 of 32 districts. Overall, whites are 47.4 percent of the voting age population and 48.1 percent of the school boards - only a very slight "over-representation" for the largest single racial/ethnic group in the city.

Overall, the results are encouraging, particularly given the complexity of the districts and the low voter turnout. Blacks and Latinos, for example, often have a voting age population high enough to allow them to elect more than one seat and usually they do so in "proportional" numbers. At least three racial/ethnic groups are represented in 9 districts and one racial/ethnic group wins all the seats in only 4 districts. The general fairness of these results is probably inconceivable with cumulative voting or limited voting, let alone with winner-take-all systems.

We would like to know more about the reasons for Latino under-representation. Part of the problem likely is that Latinos have a higher percentage of non-citizens; part of the problem could be differences within the Latino community (e.g., do Central or Latin Americans support Puerto Rican candidates?); but probably the biggest problem is relative under-mobilization. The fact that most of the districts with under-representation are "off" for Latinos by only one seat suggests that the necessary increases in mobilization are well within reach.


* The school boards currently, are 54.5 percent women. Women have won at least 39 percent of seats city wide in every school board election of the last 20 years.

* Most voters help elect their first choice among a wide field of candidates. A study of the 1973 school board elections found that 70 percent of voters had their first choice win, which is quite consistent with analyses of other preference voting elections.

Rob Richie is executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy.
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Author:Richie, Rob
Publication:National Civic Review
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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