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The Road to Electoral Reform is open

By John Anderson
Published April 14th 2002 in Rockford Register-Star

Chuck Sweeny's column (Rockford Register Star, March 17) was properly critical of our present system of electing members of the Illinois General Assembly. The reversion to single-member districts and the consequences of a winner-take-all method of election have produced less competitive contests. It also has resulted in an unhealthy (for democracy) political environment with a depressing effect on the full representation of voices in a political in a political district that should be heard.

For more than a century Illinois prospered under a form of semi-proportional representation (PR) called cumulative voting. It originally was fostered by a desire to end the political separation between Democrats and Republicans caused by the Civil War. Multiple-member districts would mean that members of one party would not dominate to the extent of total exclusion of the other in areas that because of the war had become traditionally Democratic or Republican. With this reform a few Republicans could carry their party's message from Cook County to Springfield. In downstate Illinois and in Republican redoubts such as DuPage County, a Democratic voice like that of Giddy Dyer; and in Winnebago County like Zeke Giorgi, would provide some balance. The untoward results since the adoption of the "Cut back Amendment" in the guise of saving money with a smaller legislature has become instead "Cutoff Amendment." In many one-party districts thousands of voters are in effect disenfranchised and have no voice. This has had the further effect of concentrating greater power to set the state's agenda in the "Four Tops"-- the two leaders in each House of the Illinois legislature.

We need full representation of political, racial, and ethnic minorities. To that end it will require more than just legislation to help the states finance better machinery to register and tabulate votes. It will take more than getting rid of soft money and special interest contributions.

I repeat: We must look at the structure and design of our voting systems. We must not be tied to single-member districts where with our plurality, first-past-the-post system, where no third party or independent candidate need ever apply for they inevitably will be dismissed as spoilers.

We should not tolerate forever a system where in over one half of our state legislature districts there is not even an opposition candidate in the general election. Is it really so difficult to assign the reason for the shrinking presence of the voter at elections, which are no contest at all?

Fortunately in Illinois there is more than just a glimmer of hope on the horizon. In the Illinois House there is HJRCA4 and a companion piece of legislation in the Senate, SJRCA43, to revive cumulative voting and reconfigure our state electoral map by establishing multiple-member districts. This would restore the status quo ante that gave us a legislature once described as containing the "best and the brightest." This reform grew out of a bipartisan effort co-chaired by former Republican Governor Jim Edgar and former Democratic congressman and federal judge Abner Mikva.

The drive to revive is being coordinated in Illinois by the Midwest Democracy Center, which is led by Dan Johnson-Weinberger, a recent University of Chicago law graduate. There is still time to act and put the proposition of the restoration of cumulative voting before the voters of Illinois. It can be accomplished by action of the legislature or if they will not act, to bring it to the votes then the voters can petition for a referendum. This change would put Illinois in the vanguard of states that want to give genuine meaning to voting reform and full representation.

Has this led to the stifling of creativity in the search for better solutions to growing problems? Has it repressed the efforts to achieve broader consensus on new ideas with less recourse to purely party gamesmanship? I believe the answer to both questions must be a resounding yes.

Many voices are being heard, particularly since the presidential election of 2000 and its impetus for reform to reexamine our electoral process. Yes, we need to replace punch cards with touch screen voting. Yes, we need to reduce the pernicious effects of soft money and rid our system from the bondage of an unholy alliance of big money and aspirants for public office. However; the problems are not just only mechanical and monetary. They also are systemic. Our electoral institutions need fundamental change in their design.

John Anderson, a Rockford native, was a congressman from 1960 through 1980 and ran for president as an independent candidate in 1980.