Fairness in the voting booth

ron-cytronRon Cytron, PhD, Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, School of Engineering & Applied Science

This spring, Associate Professor of Political Science Maggie Penn and I co-taught a course called “Fair Division in Theory and Practice.” This course was developed thanks to Provost Holden Thorp’s program on interdisciplinary teaching, and it brought computer science and political science disciplines and students together to address problems of fairness. Not surprisingly, we were keen to look at issues related to Ferguson. One apparent unfairness we discovered in the Ferguson-Florissant School District is that that the demographics of the school board do not reflect the demographics of the population. The ACLU has brought suit against the district, saying that it elects its board in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

Groups in our class looked at the district’s current voting procedure, which is actually mandated by state law across all of Missouri, except for the cities of Kansas City and St. Louis. Their studies showed that the “block voting” rule that is currently in use can cause a minority population to lose all seats’ races, even when the minority consists of just under 50 percent of the population. The ACLU suit proposes creating 10 voting precincts (three more than currently mandated by law) in the school district, with the goal of guaranteeing some safe seats to minority voters.

Our groups showed that while it is difficult, but possible, to create such districts, it is almost impossible to guarantee any safe seats using prevailing voter turnout statistics. Finally, some groups looked at applying the cumulative voting rule, in which a voter can place more than one vote on one candidate. This system has been in effect in Chilton, Alabama, since 1988, when it was instituted under conditions similar to Ferguson-Florissant. Our students’ experiments showed proportionally representative outcomes for the district under a wide range of candidate and voter turnout statistics.

The take-home message of the above work by our students is that a voting procedure may sound fair — the system currently in use in Ferguson-Florissant sounds reasonable at first — but it takes analysis and thought to evaluate whether it truly is. The choice of voting procedure can have a profound impact on whether an elected body is representative of its constituency. Moreover, Chilton has shown that voter turnout improves when such proportional outcomes are anticipated.