The town has hired a Duke University professor to study and possibly suggest changes to the “limited voting system,” used in the past two commission elections, that stemmed from the settlement of a 2009 Justice Department lawsuit, which claimed the former at-large voting system diluted the strength of the town’s black voters.
Lake Park commissioners who were elected under the system in March say town voters don’t like being limited to one vote when four commission seats are on the ballot — even though all four commissioners represent the whole town, and not districts.
“One of the top issues we heard while campaigning was the need to re-establish a fair voting system,” Vice Mayor Kimberly Glas-Castro said. “The voters are very frustrated with the voting process. They feel they should have a say in choosing who fills all the elected positions because all commissioners represent their interests.”
About half of the town’s 9,000 residents and 43 percent of its registered voters are black. But no black has held a commission seat since the town was incorporated in 1923.
When it investigated the town’s voting system in 2009, the Justice Department found that black candidates had run for commission seats in three elections but none was elected.
The town settled the lawsuit by agreeing to implement the limited voting system, which is used in some Southern towns to ensure that the minority vote is not diluted.
Town Attorney Tom Baird said the town settled the 2009 case because it could not afford to hire experts to defend itself in court.
“Lake Park is not the community that the Department of Justice tried to represent it as,” said Kendall Rumsey, a former town commissioner. “As a commissioner, I quickly realized that we were going to be forced into a system that was not best for Lake Park but was designed to satisfy a political agenda by outsiders.”
Two commission elections have been held under the limited voting system. But the voting system’s ability to improve the chances of minority candidates has not been tested because no black candidate ran for a commission seat in those elections.
Dorothy Taylor, a former black candidate who ran twice for a commission seat, said after the 2009 settlement that she wondered why the town didn’t simply switch to single-member districts. Taylor, who has since moved to Boynton Beach, said last week that she would not be opposed to modifying the town’s voting system as long as the new system ensures fair representation for minorities.
Former County Commissioner Addie Greene, founder of the Palm Beach County Caucus of Black Elected Officials, said single-member districts would give a minority resident a chance to serve as a commissiner in Lake Park.
“I would never have been given political opportunities without single-member districts,” Greene said.
The Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment because of the government shutdown.
Following the March election, the town hired Duke University political science research associate Richard Engstrom to study the town’s voting system. Engstrom, who works at Duke’s Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Gender in the Social Sciences, has focused much of his research on how the structure of elections affects the voting rights of minorities.
In the $800 first phase of the study, Engstrom is examining the results of the three Lake Park elections — two for commission seats and one for mayor — that have taken place since the limited voting system was put in place to determine whether town voting is “racially polarized.”
In the $8,800 second phase of the voting study, Engstrom will examine whether the limited voting system has improved the chances of blacks to elect a candidate of their choice. Baird said Engstrom also will study why none of the 14 candidates in the past two commission elections was black.
Diane Bernhard, who ran unsuccessfully for a commission seat in March, said the current system does not allow voters to choose groups of candidates they think would work well together on the dais.
Commissioner Michael O’Rourke said he would like the commission to consider a cumulative system in which town voters would get four votes for the four commission seats. Voters could use all their votes on one candidate or spread them out among the candidates as they saw fit.
“I would like to see the system reformed,” said Commissioner Kathy Rapoza.
Changing the voting system would require a referendum. To put the change before voters in March, the commission would have to adopt an ordinance containing the ballot language by Feb. 5.
“The voters of Lake Park should have an opportunity to go back to the former system,” said Rumsey, the former town commissioner. “The town has been poorly served by this one-vote, four-candidate system.”
Lake Park’s voting system
Old system: Candidates ran at large, meaning every registered voter in town could cast one vote for each open seat. Three-year terms were staggered. Two commission seats would be up one year, followed by two more commission seats the next year and the mayor’s seat the third year.
Current system: The voting system adopted by the town in 2009 to settle a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit puts all four commission seats on the ballot once every three years. Voters are allowed one vote for the four seats. The mayor’s seat is up the year after the commission election.
Voting study: The town has hired Duke University political science research associate Richard Engstrom to study the town’s voting system. The first phase of the study will examine the results of the past two commission elections. The second phase will examine whether the limited voting system has improved the chances of blacks to elect a candidate of their choice.