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Peoria Journal-Star (IL)

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 Public Affairs.

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.

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