Winner-take-all distorts de facto immigration referendum in Herndon, VA

by Jack Santucci // Published May 10, 2006
Municipal elections in Herndon, Virgina last week drew national attention as a referendum on immigration. The Washington Times called the results "a significant bellweather for voters' preferences on illegal aliens." The Washington Post headlined it a "backlash."

Against the backdrop of nationwide demonstrations, student walk-outs and an immigrant work-stop on Monday, voters tossed out an incumbent mayor and two Town Councilpersons. They sat four new members, all opposed to a publicly financed center for immigrant day laborers set up by the outgoing government.

"The central issue of this referendum vote was illegal immigration and elitist politicians ignoring the will of the American people for their own special interests," said Chris Simcox, national president of the Minutemen, who have set up a Herndon chapter. "The voters of Herndon, VA sent a clear message to their city officials: 'You're fired.'"

It's true the council went from 5-2 pro-immigrant to 6-1 anti-immigrant, but the outcome had less to do with the voters than the town's antiquated election system. As Herndon resident Tim Bovee put it in a May 5 letter to the Washington Post, "Herndon's election Tuesday says more about the failings of at-large voting than it does about any backlash against the town's day-laborer center."

At-large elections are only part of the story. And not the important part.

Under winner-take-all, at-large election systems, a demographic making up just over 50 percent of voters can claim 100 percent of contested seats.

That's more or less what happened in Herndon. Crunch the numbers. Pro-immigrant candidates won 41 percent of votes but only 17 percent of seats. 59 percent of votes went to anti-immigrant contenders. That 59 percent of votes translated into 83 percent of seats.

But the 60/40 analysis overrepresents the anti-immigrant side, which ran one more candidate. When isolating the analysis to incumbents and their challengers, the winning margin in the council race not surprisingly mirrors that of the mayoral: 52 percent.

What's more, J. Harlan Reece, lone pro-labor center winner, could easily have lost. He came in last among winners with 1,350 votes. Incumbent advantage probably put him over the edge. Had a sixth anti-immigrant challenger run, Reece probably would have been on the losing side. 52 percent of votes would have claimed every single seat...

...when the result, given voters preferences, really should have been at least 4-2 anti-center to pro-center.

Herndon was 26 percent Hispanic at the 2000 census. The size of that population more than likely has grown over the last six years. Yet it failed to elect Jorge Rochac, it's representative candidate.

Why not take Bovee's suggestion and switch to a system of wards or single-member districts, one or two of which are majority-Hispanic? Wards don't address the winner-take-all problem, which, unlike the at-large system, is the root of the situation. Herndon's Hispanic population may be too dispersed to draw compact wards. If not, it likely will become dispersed as education and income levels rise. And those who favor a day labor center aren't necessarily concentrated in one part of town.

Federal courts have struck down winner-take-all, at-large election systems in numerous jurisdictions nationwide on grounds they result in pattern disenfranchisement. A common alternative is to adopt a form of proportional voting.

Under proportional voting for a six member Town Council, every sixth of voters - or about 17 percent - would be able to elect one member. These systems let councils retain their city-wide focus, which is a benefit of at-large systems, while providing a fair share of representation to minority groups.

Proportional voting has the added benefit of letting candidates - and voters - adopt more nuanced positions. Because winner-take-all requires 50 percent to win, candidates and voters both have to be on either side of the divide. The proportional option leaves room for moderates. That is, a candidate could oppose illegal immigration, support day labor opportunities for legal immigrants, and still stand a chance at the polls.

Three common forms of proportional voting are limited, cumulative and choice voting. Over 100 jurisdictions around the United States have successfully implemented such methods, many in response to federal voting rights challenges.

Under proportional voting, pro-immigrant candidates would have won an additional seat. Sentiment on the resulting Town Council would have better mirrored sentiment among voters, and the policy discussion would have been more balanced.

For now, though, winner-take-all elections exaggerate the anti-immigrant tide in Herndon. The results are a good lesson for other American communities polarized on policy questions about taxation, community development, schools, et cetera. Winner-take-all systems overrepresent majority opinion, relegating significant points of view to the margins of policy discussion.

[ FairVote's testimony to the Montgomery Co., MD charter review commission (PDF) addressed similar issues in reference to debates over community development. ]