Springfield Journal-Register

A vote for cumulative voting:
Task force backs system used to elect House members ended by 1980 Cutback Amendment

By Bernard Schoenburg
July 8, 2001

Illinois should return to a system where Illinois House members are elected three-to-a-district, a new report recommends.

The Illinois Task Force on political Representation and Alternative Electoral Systems was set up in early 2000 by the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. The task force conducted a two-day assembly session in Chicago on Oct. 3-4, and developed a recommendation to bring a return to multi-member House districts.

The group's formal report is being issued Monday, and it states that multi-member districts would better represent all voters and reduce the power of legislative leaders.

A proclamation adopted by that assembly, which is part of the report, states that instead of single-member, winner-take-all House districts, cumulative voting tends to provide greater choice for voters in primary and general elections. It also states cumulative voting makes it easier for candidates to get in races, gives voters from the minority party in their areas greater representation and gives individual legislators more independence from legislative leaders.

"A change in electoral systems alone will not resolve the issues surrounding Illinois' political system," the proclamation states. "Campaign finance reform, for example, is a must. Nonetheless, a change in the current electoral system could be a significant first step in a process of reform. ..."

Under Illinois' 1970 Constitution, there were only 59 legislative districts in Illinois, and one member of the Senate and three members of the House were elected from each. Each major party had two candidates for the House on the general election ballot, so, for example, at least one Democrat would be elected in a Republican area.

Voters could cast three votes for one House candidate, 11/2 votes for each of two candidates, or one vote for each of three candidates. Some form of cumulative voting for the House had been used in Illinois since the late 1800s.

But after a 40 percent pay raise lawmakers voted themselves in the fall of 1978, a petition drive led by Patrick Quinn, who would later become state treasurer, led to a referendum in which voters chose to reduce membership in the Illinois House. With nearly 69 percent support in 1980, the new system took effect in 1982. Under that system, House members have been elected one-per-district from 118 districts.

Since that time, the report states, there is less competition, with half of all House races uncontested in 2000. Voter turnout is "abysmally low," with just 44 percent of eligible voters casting votes in House elections in 2000. Campaign costs have soared in competitive districts, with some races costing more than $1 million.

In areas where one party dominates, voters from the other party don't feel represented, the report states.

"Although there are some notable exceptions to this generalization, many Chicago Republicans and collar-county Democrats find themselves without partisan representation," the report states. "To put it another way, Republican votes in Chicago and Democratic votes in the collar counties (surrounding Cook County) are wasted."

The report also states that now, "legislative leaders wield excessive power, including the power to allocate campaign funds. As a result, many, if not most, legislators feel that their participation in the legislative process and their capacities to be responsive to their constituencies have been dangerously diminished."

The report also states that with single-member districts, "The representation of racial, ethnic and gender groups has marginally improved in recent decades, yet their ability to win legislative seats under the existing electoral system remains limited." It also states that "group identity and consciousness have grown during the last two decades," so "bloc voting might be more prevalent than it was in earlier years if members of the various groups felt they could rally successfully around a candidate. Such a feeling of efficacy is far more likely under cumulative than plurality voting."

The task force was chaired by former Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican, and former federal appellate judge and White House counsel Abner Mikva, a Democrat.

A key backer and participant is Dan Johnson-Weinberger of Chicago, director of the Midwest Democracy Center, a group that has been working to bring back cumulative voting. He favors having 39 House districts with three members each, for 117 House members.

"We can call it the cutback amendment," he joked, because House membership would drop by one.

There would still be 59 single-member Senate districts, not drawn to coincide with the House districts, he said.

"The whole point of representative democracy is that everyone has a voice in the legislature," he said. "Electing only one person guarantees that millions of people in Illinois don't have that voice."

Johnson-Weinberger debated Quinn about the issue at the October meeting, and Quinn also is a participant in the process.

Quinn said he thinks the task force was assembled with the idea of calling for a return to cumulative voting.

"You have a lot of alumni of that system," he said. "It was like a trip down memory lane for those folks."

But Quinn also said districts would be larger in a cumulative voting system, creating less chance for strong dominance of an ethnic minority in any district. Larger districts have been found problematic in federal courts because of the dilution of minority votes, he said. With cumulative voting returning, he added, there would be more confusion and probably more spoiled ballots because, for example, of a person's ability to cast three votes for House members.

And as for powerful leaders, Quinn said, "Apparently these guys didn't know (former House Speakers) Paul Powell and W. Robert Blair and some of the barons under the old system" when there was still cumulative voting.

Quinn said he presented alternative ideas, including having a statewide referendum annually that would be a retention vote for the House speaker and Senate president. A losing vote would mean a new leader would have to be chosen, and the accountability, Quinn said, could curtail some of the secretive deals now undertaken by leadership.

He also said House members could be elected on a nonpartisan basis, so primary voters would not have to declare their party -- thus boosting voter turnout. In such races, similar to most Illinois municipal elections, the top two finishers in a primary would square off in the general election.

Johnson-Weinberger questioned Quinn's assertion that cumulative voting wouldn't be good for racial minority representation. He said Lani Guinier, who was at one time former President Bill Clinton's nominee for assistant attorney general for civil rights, is among top proponents of cumulative voting.

Scott Koeneman, communications manager for U of I's Institute for Government and Public Affairs, said that while the report calls for three-member House districts, it doesn't specify how many districts there should be. He noted, as does the report, that many people may have favored the 1980 Cutback Amendment just to reduce the number of House members.

The report also notes a U of I survey that indicates 70 percent of respondents in April 2000 preferred a system in which both a Democrat and Republican could represent a district where one party has 70 percent of local support.

Johnson-Weinberger, whose group works closely with The Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington, D.C., said his group's immediate goal is to try to get House Executive Committee approval this fall, during the veto session, for House Joint Resolution-Constitutional Amendment 4. HJRCA4, if passed by the full legislature, would ask voters in a statewide referendum if 39 three-member districts should be in place by the 2004 election.

Johnson-Weinberger, a lawyer who was active in Ralph Nader's 2000 presidential campaign, thinks that among close watchers of Illinois politics, "the consensus has shifted" in recent years back toward favoring cumulative voting.

"This is the next great expansion of democracy," he said.

Quinn, a Democrat who says he is "definitely interested" in running for governor in 2002, also says he is not opposed to reform, but doesn't think the right reform is to say, "Let's go back to the past."

Bernard Schoenburg can be reached at 788-1540 or [email protected]