The Springfield News-Gazette

Cumulative voting tries to stage comeback


The News-Gazette April 1, 2001

SPRINGFIELD. Voting three times in one state representative race is illegal these days, but it wasn't always that way.

For more than 100 years, Illinois residents could cast three votes for a single House candidate or spread their votes among two or three candidates. Three candidates were elected from each district.

The system, called cumulative voting, ended in 1980, but a growing group in Illinois is seeking to bring it back.

"Even the fiercest opponents will concede that it gives representation to the political minority, not just the political majority," said Dan Johnson-Weinberger, executive director of the Midwest Democracy Center, the group leading the drive to revive cumulative voting. "That's the biggest single benefit."

Johnson-Weinberger, a University of Illinois graduate, is working with state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago, to pass a proposed amendment to the Illinois Constitution that would divide the state into 39 districts, with three representatives elected from each district.

State Rep. Rick Winkel, R-Champaign, is a co-sponsor of the measure.

"I think that that system provides a broader and more diverse representation for a district," Winkel said.

The Illinois House currently is made up of 118 representatives, each of whom represents one district.

From 1870 to 1980, Illinois had 59 House districts with three state representatives from each.

In 1980, voters approved an amendment that cut back the number of state representatives from 177 to 118 and eliminated cumulative voting in favor of the current system. The measure was put on the ballot by a petition drive led by Chicago attorney Pat Quinn.

"The system was complicated and it was rigged by insiders," Quinn said. "People can get disenfranchised."

But it wasn't really dislike for the concept of cumulative voting that swayed most advocates for Quinn's famous "cutback amendment," said Charles N. Wheeler, director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the UI-Springfield. It was anger over the fact that state lawmakers voted right after the November 1978 election to raise their pay from $20,000 to $28,000 a year, he said.

 "In my mind, the only thing that brought about the demise of cumulative voting was that the Legislature did a lame-duck pay raise," Wheeler said. "The argument for the cutback amendment was 'We can eliminate 59 representatives and these are the greedy politicians who raised their pay.'"

The cutback amendment was approved by a 2-to-1 margin, with especially strong support from Champaign County and East Central Illinois, Quinn said.

"I think they were sold a bill of goods," Winkel said. "I don't think it has worked well, and I think we should go back to multimember districts."

Quinn said he does not believe voters will ever approve an amendment to return to cumulative voting.

"The reason you want one person, one vote is that it's the fairest, most simple, straightforward way to elect representatives," he said.

James D. Nowlan, a political science professor at Southern Illinois University, was elected to the Illinois House under the cumulative voting system, but he concedes the system has drawbacks.

"One of the drawbacks was that the legislators were less accountable to the voters, because a legislator could be re-elected with less than a majority of the votes," Nowlan said. "In effect, with about 26 percent of the vote, a person could be re-elected."

James Kuklinski, a professor of political science at the UI Institute for Government and Public Affairs, said cumulative voting was not clear to all voters.

"There's no doubt that some people did find it confusing," he said.

Quinn said a study by the Illinois League of Women Voters found that during the years cumulative voting was in place, there were more spoiled ballots for state representative races than in any other race in the state.

Quinn also argues that the dramatically larger districts created under the proposed amendment would be too hard to represent, especially in downstate areas where the population is widely dispersed, he said.

"We have big enough districts as they are," Quinn said.

Supporters of cumulative voting disagree.

"I would rather vote for someone who represents my views and lives a few counties away then have someone representing me who lives next door whose views I don't agree with," said Johnson-Weinberger.

"We're one of the only democracies in the world to not represent political minorities," he said. "That's the most important thing we can do to improve our democracy."

Winkel called it "insulting" to suggest voters aren't smart enough to figure out cumulative voting.

"I think the voters are certainly intelligent enough to deal with a system like this," he said. "We did this for many, many decades, and it worked very well."

Supporters of the system maintain that cumulative voting will make elections more competitive and encourage more participation from voters and potential candidates.

About 50 percent of House races in the last election had no competition at all, and of the remaining 50 percent, a large number had only token competition, Kuklinski said.

Cumulative voting gives more people a reason to participate in politics because more elections are up in the air, Johnson-Weinberger said.

"It also loosens the grip of control that the party leaders try to exert in districts, particularly targeted districts," said Winkel, who represents one of the most targeted districts in the state. "I think cumulative voting renders targeted districts a thing of the past."

The current system tends to produce legislators who are more beholden to the leaders than those in the cumulative voting system, agreed Nowlan.

"A liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican could get elected under the (cumulative) system without kowtowing to the leaders, because he or she needs just a minority of the votes," he said.

A group of political and civic leaders sponsored by the UI Institute of Government and Public Affairs came out more than two to one in favor of cumulative voting after meeting last fall.

Former Gov. Jim Edgar and former White House Counsel Abner Mikva head the Illinois Assembly on Political Representation and Alternative Electoral Systems.

The group said cumulative voting could increase choices for voters, make legislators more independent and improve representation of political and ethnic minorities.

A final report on the group's position is being prepared.

The proposal to return to cumulative voting faces a tough road. Amending the Constitution takes a three-fifths majority in both the House and the Senate, and approval from the governor.

At least 60 percent of voters must also approve the measure.

House Minority Leader Lee Daniels, R-Elmhurst, supports cumulative voting, said his spokesman, Gregg Durham.

But House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, has not taken an official position on the issue.

"I think he's skeptical about whether or not we could return to those days," said Madigan spokesman Steve Brown. "I think you would have a hard time selling it as anything other than an expansion of government."

Nowlan said lawmakers are reluctant to change the status quo.

"The Legislature is certainly not going to change itself," he said. "It'll never happen. They don't want to change the system to which they've become familiar."

Winkel was more optimistic.

"I don't think we're jousting at windmills here," he said. "I think it's something that is being taken seriously. I think it's starting to gain momentum."

If state lawmakers don't approve the amendment, Johnson-Weinberger said he is considering a petition drive to put the measure on the ballot, but that would take a major effort.

"I'd need about a quarter of a million signatures," he said.

Whatever happens, it won't be without some extensive debate.

"Each system for voting has some strengths and some drawbacks," Nowlan said. "It depends upon what a society wants to achieve as to what electoral system would be best for it. You get very heated opinions as to whether cumulative voting is good."

Constitutional amendments a tough sell

SPRINGFIELD Amending the Illinois Constitution is no easy task, but that does not dissuade state lawmakers.

This year there are 12 proposed constitutional amendments making their way through the Legislature. They cover everything from taxes to term lengths.

None of the amendments has won legislative approval yet.

Since the adoption of the 1970 Constitution, state lawmakers have proposed more than 650 amendments. Of those, the General Assembly sent 16 to voters, only nine of which were adopted.

Just over 1 percent of all proposed amendments ever became part of the Constitution.

A proposed amendment must be approved by a three-fifths vote in both the House and the Senate. The question is then put to voters at the next general election, where it needs at least 60 percent of the vote.

The General Assembly can only offer three proposed amendments at any one general election.

Lawmakers aren't the only ones who can put a proposed amendment on the ballot. Voters can do so by petition if they collect enough signatures to equal at least 8 percent of the votes cast in the last election for governor.

The only successful amendment through the petition process was the 1980 cutback amendment proposed by Chicago attorney Pat Quinn. The measure reduced the number of state representatives from 177 to 118 and eliminated cumulative voting.

The Illinois Supreme Court struck down three other amendments proposed through the petition or initiative process.

The last time voters approved an amendment to the Illinois Constitution was in 1998 with a measure that changed the structure of the Courts Commission in the wake of a controversy involving former Illinois Supreme Court Justice James Heiple.

Many of the proposed amendments this year are not new ideas. Many have been suggested repeatedly in the past but failed to gain the necessary support.