Bring cumulative voting
back to Illinois
By Abner Mikva and Jim Nowlan
August 5, 2001
After the battle over ballots in Florida, Americans
appreciate that voting systems have an impact. Now voters need to
understand that accuracy or fairness in voting is meaningless if
there is no competition, which is usually the case in Illinois'
legislative elections. Illinois can put competition and meaning back
into voting by returning to a system put in place by the Illinois
Constitution, but changed in 1980 - cumulative voting.
The biggest electoral challenges for American
democracy have been to count votes fairly; give voters meaningful
choices; afford party, racial and varied minority groups access to
office; prevent money from dominating democracy and diminish the
sense that "my vote is being wasted."
After the 2000 election, the University of Illinois'
Institute of Government and Public Affairs, with the support of the
Joyce Foundation, brought together 70 Illinois civic and political
leaders for a two-day retreat to discuss how to improve Illinois'
electoral system, and possibly others in the United States as well.
We evaluated and argued about various systems,
including preference voting, proportional voting (used extensively
in Europe) and various types of runoff elections. But we kept coming
back to the two systems with which we have direct experience in
Illinois: single-member district, winner-take-all voting, which is
now in use in Illinois and most of the country, and cumulative
voting, which Illinois used from 1870 to 1980 to elect the Illinois
House of Representatives.
Mind you, both of us benefited from cumulative voting.
Mikva believes he beat the old Chicago Machine in the 1950s only
because his supporters were able to cumulate their votes for him.
Nowlan feels the same way about his election from a tiny rural
county where "his voters" also cumulated their votes effectively.
Our enthusiasm for cumulative voting goes beyond the benefits we
reaped from it. We think it made for a better and more
representative legislative body.
The cumulative voting system was changed to
single-member districts after the passage of the "cutback
amendment." The amendment was placed on the statewide ballot as part
of a backlash against unpopular pay raises for legislators. It was
marketed as a way to reduce the size of the General Assembly, not as
an improvement in our electoral system.
In single-member plurality districts the candidate who
receives the most votes (even if not a majority) is elected. In
cumulative voting as used until 1980 for the Illinois House, three
candidates were elected from each district. A voter was given three
votes and could cumulate all three for one candidate if desired. In
that way the minority party (or racial group or rural constituency)
was usually able to capture one of the three seats in the district.
Because cumulative voting was used in primary
elections as well, there was often competition within the party, as
well as between parties.
The fundamental problem with single-member elections
in Illinois - in districts gerrymandered by the legislators to
improve their own chances of re-election - is that most voters are
denied any choice whatsoever. In this past election in Illinois, for
example, more than half the races for the House had only one
candidate running to fill one seat. And there was meaningful
competition for only 16 of the 140 state House and Senate seats
filled in November; that is, only 16 districts had races where the
outcome was really ever in doubt.
In contrast, under cumulative voting as it operated
from 1970 to 1980, the newly adopted state constitution required
that each political party nominate at least two candidates for the
three House seats in a district. Further, with the ability of a
candidate to rally his or her voters to cumulate their three votes,
a candidate independent of political leaders or a candidate
representing minority views in the district had at least a fighting
chance of winning in the primary and general elections. And if the
pool of candidates with some chance of being elected is increased,
fewer voters feel their vote is wasted or meaningless.
After two days of discussion and debate, a good
majority of the participants at our gathering concluded that, for
Illinois, "cumulative voting in multi-member districts would be
preferable at this time to single-member districts."
The civic and political leaders also realized that
changing electoral systems alone will not resolve every dilemma
facing the American political system, such as the excessive
influence of money in democracy and voter apathy. Nevertheless, we
now know that electoral systems matter, and we believe that it's
time to bring cumulative voting back to the Illinois voters, so
their votes will be both accurately counted and meaningful.
Abner Mikva has been a Democratic state legislator
and congressman, a U.S. appellate judge and counsel to the
president. He co-chaired the Assembly on Political Representation
conducted by the University of Illinois' Institute of Government and
Jim Nowlan is a former Republican state legislator
and campaign manager for U.S. Senate and presidential campaigns. He
is a senior fellow at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs
and lives in Toulon.