Illinois Students Vote for PR and IRV
Office of the
Student Body President
Illinois Student Government (ISG) elections
will now be governed by proportional representation instead of a
winner-take-all system, following a student body referendum
overwhelmingly supporting the change earlier this week.
to the ISG Constitution will specifically alter the election of the
executive positions to an instant-runoff process, and the fifteen
elected ISG assembly members will be chosen by the open-party list
method of proportional representation.
November 12 and 13, 3,640
University of Illinois students voted in support of the measure,
while 1,187 students voted against making the change.
referendum success is seen by many as an opportunity to dramatically
increase the political and cultural diversity of Illinois Student
"This will give opportunity to minority students while
the current system has failed them," said ISG Governmental Affairs
Committee Vice-Chair Kate Harshman. "Im excited to see the impact of
this referendum on the March 2002 ISG elections. I believe youll
find that students who had previously been disenfranchised by ISG,
will now realize that they can win a voice on student government
with only 20-30% of the total vote."
Illinois Student Government
presented the referendum question to the student body following
complaints and concerns about a lack of cultural and political
minority representation in student government.
The movement towards proportional
representation mirrors a similar movement within the Illinois state
legislature to return to cumulative voting and 3-member districts.
HOW IT HAPPENED: An
Analysis by CVD's National Field Director Dan Johnson-Weinberger
When I attended the
University of Illinois at Champaign-Urban, in 1996 I helped found a
group to advocate for proportional representation.
in the school newspaper and aggressive petition drives for the
Illinois legislature and the city of Urbana, we ultimately convinced
the good-government leadership of the student government in the
winter of 1997 to put on the spring 1997 ballot a PR referendum.
Unfortunately, the measure was defeated.
As it turns out, generally
the Greek houses dominated student government from the mid-nineties
through the end of the decade. Political 'slates' formed as parties,
and they tended to be racially polarized. Usually, the Greek slate
was overwhelmingly white, while a slate of African-American cultural
groups formed with some participation from student activists from
other racial minority groups. Predictably, the Greek slate won
almost all of the seats, usually leaving the racial minority slate
with almost no representation.
In the 1997 election, there was no
formal opposition to the referendum. Unfortunately, there was no
slate of African-Americans that year, and it became essentially a
one-slate campaign. That slate did not benefit from proportional
representation, and the election was lost -- even though there was
almost no public opposition to the measure.
Participation in the
student government started to shift away from the Greek houses and
towards the political students, and those political students tended
to be more reform-minded..
In the fall of 2000, a progressive slate
won control of the student government, led by Bob Morgan at student
body president. This slate tended to emphasize racial diversity and
service learning. Bob in particular promoted proportional
representation and managed to convince the student government to put
proportional representation on the ballot in a fall 2001 referendum.
Again, there was no opposition to the measure. This time, however,
the message of proportional representation had clearly penetrated
While campaigning on campus for this election, I was
struck with how many more students knew what proportional
representation was (if vaguely) and was impressed with the consensus
that it was fairer than winner-take-all than with what had existed
in 1997. I remain convinced that the basic message of proportional
representation still resonates: if a group gets 20% of the vote, it
is only fair that they get 20% of the representation. More people
had heard of it, thought about it and supported the idea.
So now, students
voted to change the Illinois Student Government bylaws to proportional
representation and instant runoff voting, five years after
a group had first formed to advocate for the smarter electoral system.
I believe the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, with 36,000
students, is the first university to use an open-list proportional
system for the legislature and instant runoff voting for
the executives. It was really gratifying to see the consensus
shift on campus.
I think the lesson is to hammer away and advocate
for electoral reform -- especially to 'political' people who pay
attention to politics and/or serve in public office. We electoral
reformers can work to put our issues in the realm of public debate
-- whether they get implemented as part of the consensus is, in
part, ultimately beyond our control.