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University of Illinois Students Vote for PR and IRV

November 2001

News Release
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.

The change 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.

This referendum success is seen by many as an opportunity to dramatically increase the political and cultural diversity of Illinois Student Government.

"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.

Through columns 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 more students.

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.

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