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Chicago Sun-Times

Let's bring back old way of voting
July 16, 2001

Here's a hard sell: What Illinois needs is more politicians. But an intriguing new, or should we say old, idea has emerged about the Legislature that's worth a look. Twenty years ago the Illinois House had 177 members from 59 districts. A voter went to the polls with three votes that he could cast for a single House candidate or spread them out for three contenders. Usually, Republicans and Democrats each offered two candidates. Voters elected two majority party candidates, but the minority party was also able to send representation from each district. That meant that Illinois once had a significant number of Republican legislators from Chicago and Democratic lawmakers from strong GOP suburbs. But in 1980, by constitutional amendment and in the name of cost-cutting, the House was shrunk to 117 and a winner- take-all voting procedure replaced cumulative voting.

The current system is now under attack from some pretty distinguished quarters. Former U.S. judge and Clinton White House counsel Abner Mikva and former GOP Gov. Jim Edgar co-chaired an examination of the system by a 70-member panel. Their report recommends returning to cumulative voting. It says the current system stifles competition (half of district races in 2000 were uncontested), erodes participation in the House (the four legislative leaders hold the purse strings and the lawmaking power) and disillusions voters (only 44 percent eligible to vote did so in the last legislative contests--Mikva says one of his legislative races under the old system outpolled a presidential contest).

The ideal of representative democracy is often poorly served in Springfield. Important matters such as billion dollar-plus improvements to the state's community colleges get attention that can be timed with a stopwatch. What's the point of thorough examination when in the end, it usually comes down to the consensus of the Four Tops? The Mikva-Edgar panel says that the solution to that may be a return to the old. Sure, if the argument is framed as one of more politicians, it's a loser. But cumulative voting is more appealing when viewed through the lens of a more representative, inclusive and democratic Legislature with a strong minority voice.

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