As a Virgin Islander and a mathematician who studies the theory of voting, I read with great interest about the recent filing of a federal lawsuit challenging the current system of electing legislators in the territory. The argument brought forth by the plaintiffs, Robert Hoffman and Joe San Martin, is not new, but this is the first time that it has been so loudly stated here in the Virgin Islands.
The issues involved are very controversial for many reasons, not the least of which is the unease that many people, including myself, have with assuming that individuals from the same demographic group will share similar political views. In writing this article I have attempted to ignore the controversy and focus simply on the mathematics behind the argument.
The main issue in this debate is the concept of "fairness" to minority groups. What is generally meant by fairness in this context is that if a group (majority or minority) constitutes a certain percentage of the population, then approximately that same percentage of the elected legislators should represent that group. For example, if 10 percent of the population is Hispanic, then about 10 percent of the legislators should represent the Hispanic group.
For various reasons, measuring this kind of fairness is a tricky business. The groups are not always fully organized and identifiable (you don't register to vote as a Hispanic), individuals can identify themselves with more than one group (a person can be both Hispanic and black) or none at all, and it's not always clear whether an elected official "represents" a specific group even if he/she is part of that group.
Additionally, it's not always easy to translate from percentages to the exact number of representatives that a group should have. For example, it may be determined that 10 percent of the seven St. Croix legislators should represent Hispanics. But 10 percent of 7 is 0.7 and, since senators are people, the group can't be represented by seven-tenths of a senator. There are methods to determine whether the 0.7 should be rounded up to one senator or rounded down to no senators, but none of the methods is perfect.
With these types of difficulties and limitations in mind, what can we rationally say about the current level of fairness to white and Hispanic voters in the territory? All of the raw data used in this analysis are taken from the 2000 census, which showed 108,612 people living in the territory. With 15 legislators, there are about 7,241 people per senator.
Put another way, one senator constitutes 1/15th, or about 6.7 percent of the Legislature. So a demographic group constituting 6.7 percent of the population should be represented by one senator. There are 15,198 Hispanics of any race (14 percent), 12,275 non-Hispanic whites (11.3 percent), and 76,696 (70.6 percent) non-Hispanic blacks in the territory. These numbers suggest that the Hispanic group should have 2 representatives, the non-Hispanic whites should have 1.7 representatives, and the non-Hispanic blacks should have 10.6 representatives.
(Note: The numbers don't always add up, because 4,445 (4.1 percent) of Virgin Islanders belong to none of these three groups.)
Currently there are 14 senators who are black, one (on St. Thomas) who is white, and none that are Hispanic. The situations on the individual islands are quite different. There are 7 senators from each district, so in each district a senator constitutes 1/7th, or about 14.3 percent, of that island's legislative contingent.
On St. Croix there are 53,234 people, of whom 11,277 (21.2 percent) are Hispanics of any race, 4,707 (8.8 percent) are non-Hispanic whites, and 35,003 (65.8 percent) are non-Hispanic blacks. These numbers suggest that the St. Croix Hispanic group should have 1.5 representatives, the non-Hispanic blacks should have 4.6 representatives and the non-Hispanic whites should have 0.6 representative.
On St. Thomas there are 51,181 people, of whom 3,712 (7.3 percent) are Hispanics of any race, 6,012 (11.7 percent) are non-Hispanic whites, and 39,369 (76.9 percent) are non-Hispanic blacks. These numbers suggest that the St. Thomas Hispanic group should have 0.5 representative, the non-Hispanic blacks should have 5.4 representatives, and the non-Hispanic whites should have 0.8 representative.
On St. John the issue is moot because there is only one senator "from" St. John. It is interesting to note, however, that since the population of St. John is only 4,197, then this type of logic would suggest that the St. John group should have only 0.58 representative.
All of these results are very interesting because they show that the measured level of "fairness" differs depending on whether we look at the entire territory or at the individual islands. For the entire territory it would seem that the white group is probably under-represented, the Hispanic group is definitely under-represented, and the black group is definitely over-represented.
However, looking at St. Thomas and St. Croix individually indicates that the Hispanic group is under-represented on St. Croix, but that the group is not large enough on St. Thomas to expect to have a representative. For the white group it's worse, because on neither island is the group large enough to automatically expect to have a representative.
The black group is definitely over-represented on St. Croix, but on St. Thomas this group is only slightly over-represented, and one could argue that the level of representation on St. Thomas is reasonable. Since there does seem to be some measurable unfairness, especially for the Hispanic group, the next problem is to decide upon a remedy for the situation.
According to The V.I. Daily News, the plaintiffs in the recent lawsuit are "demanding that a 'reapportionment board' carve St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John into districts whose residents would elect individual senators." This is potentially problematic because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against using race as a factor in drawing political boundaries.
The two most recent attempts at V.I. election reform — numbered seats and reducing the number of legislators — would just make matters worse. The former because the elections would be reduced to single-winner races, and the latter because in that case only a very large minority group could reasonably expect to have its own representative.
Another alternative is a voting method called "cumulative voting," which was the topic of a recent talk given by a guest speaker at the University of the Virgin Islands Mathematics Seminar. This method has commonly been used in other locales to remedy this type of situation and is very similar to our current method.
With cumulative voting, a St. Thomas or a St. Croix voter would still have seven votes, but he/she could decide to give more than one vote to a single candidate. For example, if a Hispanic St. Croix voter really wanted to elect, say, Juan Figueroa-Serville and/or Robert Acosta, she could cast four votes for Figueroa-Serville and three votes to Acosta, or even choose to give all seven of her votes to Acosta.
Cumulative voting has been shown to do a good job of closely matching a group's voting power to the group's size relative to the overall population. No matter what change (if any) is made to our current system of electing legislators, it is my sincere hope that the decision is based on a firm understanding of the science and mathematics behind the issue.
Editor's note: Dr. Adam W. Parr, Ph. D., is an associate professor of mathematics and math coordinator for the Science and Mathematics Division of the University of the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas campus.
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