Chicago Tribune

New legislature reform push
By Christi Parsons
July 8, 2001

Two decades after one of the most monumental reforms in Illinois political history, a task force of politicians past and present, including some considered reformers in their own right, is declaring it a dismal failure and calling for a reversal.

The so-called "Cutback Amendment" was supposed to save money in government salaries and office expenses by cutting out one-third of the Illinois General Assembly and eliminating a quirky electoral feature in which multiple lawmakers were elected from each House district.

But now a 70-member task force of politicians, academics and government watchdogs, led by former Democratic Congressman Abner Mikva and former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, says the changes have resulted in lower voter turnout, a tougher hurdle to victory for women and minority candidates, and the concentration of power in the hands of just a few legislative leaders.

"It was an attractive idea, because anything that gets rid of politicians seems good," said Mikva, a liberal who has also served as a federal judge and White House counsel in the Clinton administration. "But some negative things resulted. The system is not working the way it should."

The author of the cutback takes issue with the criticism, saying other factors are to blame for the problems. The task force members are pining for "a golden oldie that was rejected by voters," said former State Treasurer Patrick Quinn, who led the cutback crusade in 1980.

Indeed, even task force members acknowledge it would be hard to get voters to tinker with the system again. People probably would be less willing to enlarge the legislature than they were to cut it, they concede. And party leaders who prosper under the current system aren't likely to push for change.

Nevertheless, a majority of the Mikva-Edgar panel recommends the state go back to the old way of electing lawmakers, a system by which each legislative district sent three representatives to the Illinois House. Typically, Republicans and Democrats each put up two candidates in each district, and voters were given three votes to divide among them.

When this "cumulative voting" system was in place, most legislative districts elected two representatives of the majority party and a third representative of the minority party. In the 1970s, reformers began to float the idea of ending cumulative voting and cutting the size of the legislature from 177 to 118. The idea picked up steam after lawmakers voted themselves a 40 percent raise in the closing days of the 1978 session.

Quinn and a group called the Coalition for Political Honesty capitalized on public outrage over the pay raise and managed to get a proposal for a constitutional amendment to cut back the legislature on the ballot in 1980. It passed easily with 69 percent of the vote, recalled Quinn, a Chicago attorney.

"The old system was a failure," said Quinn, a Democrat who parlayed the publicity he garnered from his referendum efforts into his later successful run for state treasurer. "It wasn't healthy for people who have traditionally been excluded."

That turns out to be a key point of dispute between Quinn and the task force. Mikva's group said the current system limits the ability of women and racial and ethnic minorities to win legislative seats. With three seats per district, a small but active special interest group could turn out enough voters to win, said Mikva, who once served in the Illinois House.

"You could win without a party base," Mikva said of his first legislative race, conducted under the old system. "My base was the University of Chicago, and I was able to beat the party candidate."

The representation of minority groups has improved in recent decades, the report concedes, but task force members argue this is a result of the way district maps have been drawn.

The report also suggests that a decline in voter turnout over the past two decades is due in part to the lack of competitive legislative races. Turnout is discernibly lower in districts without competitive state legislative elections, the task force found.

Because it's so much harder and more costly to win, fewer candidates want to get into a race, said Dan Johnson-Weinberger, a task force member and executive director of the Midwest Democracy Center, a non- profit group for electoral reform. Indeed, half of all legislative races were uncontested in the last general election.

"What possible incentive is there for people to vote or get involved if there's only one person on the ballot?" said Johnson- Weinberger. "If the minority can't elect one of their own and always loses, voters tend to get the picture and quit participating."

Because party support has become so important to candidates, legislative leaders such as Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan and Republican Senate President James "Pate" Philip control campaign funds and wield excessive power, the report concludes.

But Quinn disagrees with many of the report's conclusions. He contends the current system isn't prohibitive to women and minorities, or else there wouldn't be so many in the legislature now.

He says politicians in power are to blame for low voter turnout and the lack of competition. They have drawn district maps and made other decisions that help incumbents and hurt potential challengers, he charges.

But even task force members acknowledge it will be hard to win support for their proposed change.

"It's a hard sell," acknowledged state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D- Chicago), majority leader in the House. "People are not much focused on the intricacies of how electoral systems operate."

Though Currie backs the task force recommendations, she says many of her colleagues and their political supporters have reason to oppose them.

"People who do well under an existing system are likely to be supportive of it," she said. "I don't think advocacy groups, unions and corporations feel they have lost a voice with the changeover.