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Chicago Sun-Times

Old System Better for Minorities

By Judy Baar Topinka, Illinois State Treasurer
July 30, 2001

Cumulative voting should be brought back. It provided better representation and was a fairer way to serve the people of Illinois, writes Judy Baar Topinka.

How do I know that cumulative voting works and ought to be brought back? Because I have lived the system, was in the last group of representatives elected through this system and saw the benefits that a system like cumulative voting could provide to an independent-thinking person like myself to be able to run and win against long odds and well-oiled machines.

Twenty years ago the public voted to end Illinois' unique system of cumulative voting, the only such system in the United States to provide representation to both majority and minority candidates from each party. The public was upset that representatives had voted themselves a chunky pay raise, and now it was payback time. Furthermore, it is always fun to eradicate politicians.

Yes, the legislature is probably more efficient now, but at what cost?

The only savings incurred was that of the salaries of one-third of the House of Representatives. From that point on, there was more expensive hired staff, more introduction of bills and more concentration of power in the hands of the legislative leaders.

The governor and the Four Tops are not a rock band but five individuals in whom the power of the legislature rests while individual representatives have watched their influences lessen to an echo.

While visiting with a legislator attending a seminar I was conducting, I asked him, generically, how he was doing.

"What difference does it make?" he snapped. "It doesn't make any difference what I say or do or want or need for my district. The leadership controls everything. We get stuff to vote on when they decide on what they want. We don't even know what we are voting on."

I was rather taken aback at his remarks. But then, legislators for many years now have been calling themselves "the Mushrooms" because mushrooms are kept in the dark and fedıwell, you know what mushrooms get for fertilizer.

Under the cumulative voting system, people could pick three representatives per district--two from the majority party, one from the minority.

Now, there is only the majority party representative, who has become more and more partisan as elections have grown more costly and special interests have become stronger. Special interests no longer have to dissipate energy over three representatives per district; they can concentrate on one with far better aim and results.

Elections have gotten more cutthroat and nastier, too. Independent Republicans and independent Democrats could no longer use the "bullet ballot" of casting three votes for one candidate to fight the various political machines that exist around the state. And independents of either party did not fit the cookie-cutter shapes that polling and prescribed legislative districts now demanded. Debate, issues, committees and all other aspects of the House could now be controlled.

The cumulative voting system, although unique, was not broken and needed no fixing. Although we have many fine people serving in the Illinois House and attempting to move their issues, nothing gave them as much latitude and ability to change the course of history as cumulative voting.

Cumulative voting provided proportional representation, a fairer way for the public to participate. It could accommodate more women, ethnic and minority legislators, independents and yes, even "characters" who march to different drummers and dare to push the envelope with new ideas and visions for Illinois.

A resolution in the Illinois House would allow voters to decide whether Illinois should return to cumulative voting. It is time to go back so as to go forward.

Judy Baar Topinka serves as Illinois State Treasurer. She is a Republican.

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