By William Raspberry
May 22, 2004
A lot of people in Illinois didn't like what was happening
in their state 135 years ago. Political discourse was becoming
more contentious as the electorate became more polarized,
north and south. Worse, many thousands of Illinois citizens,
though fully enfranchised in theory, had little say in who
went to Springfield to represent them.
These were the voters who, unable to muster a plurality of
votes, could only watch as candidates inimical to their
interests were elected. So some influential people — Joseph
Medill, publisher of The Chicago Tribune among them — came
up with an idea: Instead of having state representatives run
in single-member districts, they would divide the state into
three-member super districts, eliminating the winner-take-all
feature of the old system.
The effect was to make it possible for substantial
minorities to win representation; a candidate in a
three-member district could be elected with as little as 25
percent of the vote. Typically, one of the three seats went to
the hard core of the majority party, one to a more independent
perspective within that party and one to the minority party
candidate. But something else became apparent, said Rob
Richie, executive director of the Maryland-based Center for
Voting and Democracy.
Bipartisan cooperation became the norm since Illinois was
no longer split along party lines. More candidates found
themselves blunting their sharp edges — both in their
campaigns and in their party caucuses. And since the sharp
divisions were no longer necessary, more moderate candidates
in both parties started to seek election. Bridge-building
became the norm.
That, said Richie, is how it went in Illinois from 1870 to
1980, when "reformers" slashed the number of members
in the state House and also opted for smaller, single-member
All the problems that led to the 110-year Illinois
"experiment" are present today in elections to the
U.S. House of Representatives. Political campaigns are
increasingly divisive, moderate voices are marginalized in
both major parties and, in virtually every state, substantial
electoral minorities have no one of their choosing to
represent them. As Richie put it, "All those red states
have blue people in them, and the blue states have red people
in them. But their votes don't elect anybody."
And it is growing worse, as state party operatives use
increasingly sophisticated computer models to draw
congressional district lines so as to maximize their
advantage. Pennsylvania's 19 districts, carved out by the
Republican-controlled Legislature, elected 12 Republicans —
although Democrats held a statewide voter edge of 540,000.
Such gerrymandering has become routine. And the U.S. Supreme
Court, ruling on the Pennsylvania case, said last month that
it was powerless to interfere in what it said was essentially
a political matter.
It's easy enough to see why the court (which earlier
overturned maps drawn specifically to create black majority
— or near-majority — districts) doesn't want to enter the
map-drawing thicket. To argue against a specific gerrymander
is to imply that there is a fair way to create districts.
There isn't. People don't live in checkerboard squares, and
political interests don't follow straight lines. Have a dozen
cartographers divide Pennsylvania into 19 roughly equal
parcels, and you're likely to get a dozen different electoral
results. More than 98 percent of incumbents have won House
elections since 1996, almost all by lopsided margins.
Is there any way to produce fairer elections that provide
at least a reasonable chance that most voters will be able to
elect someone who represents their interests? Richie believes
there is: The three-member congressional super districts his
organization has been touting for years will, he says, make
possible the political civility and interparty cooperation
that marked Illinois politics for more than a century, while
empowering any political or racial minority that can muster at
least 25 percent of the vote. And all with reasonable-looking,
more or less "natural" district boundaries.
CVD would combine the super districts with a system of
"choice" voting, in which voters get to indicate not
just their first choice, but also their second and third —
giving candidates an incentive to build coalitions rather than
polarize the electorate. Richie makes a strong case that the
two reforms taken together would cure just about all that is
wrong — including low voter turnout.
It won't happen this year, since it would require repealing
the 1967 legislation mandating that all U.S. House districts
be single-member. But Richie hopes at least to get the