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Chicago Sun-Times

A Commonsense Plan to Revive Legislature
By Steve Neal
July 11, 2001

It was a blow to democratic government in this state. The 1980 ''Cutback Amendment,'' which shrunk the Illinois House of Representatives by a third, had unintended consequences.

As a result of the cutback, the power of special interests and the legislative leadership were strengthened at the expense of the people.

A task force of public officials, scholars, political activists and civic leaders has produced a blueprint for reform that shows how the damage can be undone.

Former Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican, and Abner J. Mikva, a former Democratic congressman and former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals, are the co-chairmen of the 70-member Task Force on Political Representation and Alternative Electoral Systems.

Their recommendation is a restoration of cumulative voting. Under this system, each legislative district elected two members from the majority party and one from the minority party. Each voter had three votes. They could cast a three-vote ''bullet'' vote for a single candidate, choose two candidates, or split their ballot for three of the four nominees.

The 1980 amendment, which was passed by referendum, virtually wiped out the Democratic Party in DuPage County and killed the GOP in the city of Chicago.

Mikva, 75, who began his political career in the Illinois House, notes that it is virtually impossible for independents to win legislative seats under the current system. He observed that voter turnout has declined as a result of limited choice and the lack of electoral competition. In last year's election, half of Illinois' House races were uncontested. Another fourth of the House faced only token opposition.

Women, racial minorities and independents would be likely to gain more representation under cumulative voting.

When Illinois had three-member legislative districts, an independent like Mikva could successfully challenge the political establishment.

The cumulative voting system produced some outstanding Democratic legislators from the suburbs, including former state Rep. Harold Katz of the North Shore, the late House Speaker William A. Redmond of DuPage County, former House Majority Leader Gerald Shea of Riverside, and Anthony Scariano of University Park.

Under the cumulative voting system, nearly 20 percent of the House GOP caucus was from Chicago. Twenty years ago, House Majority Leader Arthur A. Telcser and his assistant leaders Pete Peters and Philip W. Collins were all Chicago Republicans. Chicago got much better treatment from the General Assembly when the city had a strong presence in both party caucuses.

If cumulative voting is restored, the House might once again become a deliberative body. The Mikva-Edgar report notes that the cutback amendment has produced larger party majorities and greater party cohesion but at a cost. There is less discussion of issues, and the decision making is made by the leadership.

Former state Rep. James D. Nowlan, a member of the task force, lamented that the leaders operate in such secrecy under the current system that their membership is often uninformed about important legislation.

''At the last session,'' said Nowlan, ''legislators didn't know what was in the budget.''

Is there a chance that Illinois voters will restore representative government?

The Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois conducted a statewide survey last year, which included several questions about cumulative voting.

One question asked: ''Imagine a legislative district in which two-thirds of the voters are Democrats and one-third are Republicans. Do you think such a district should be represented by a single Democratic legislator or by both a Democratic and Republican legislator?'' Another question reversed the percentages, so that two-thirds of the voters were Republicans.

In both cases, 70 percent of the poll's respondents said that they favored an electoral system in which legislators are chosen from both major parties. Less than 20 percent favored retention of single-member districts.

Mikva and Edgar have made a most compelling case for the restoration of cumulative voting. The cutback amendment is the worst thing that ever happened to the General Assembly. It's time to restore power to the people.
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