Cumulative Voting Wins in Peoria

by Cameron Ferrante // Published April 8, 2015

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BethJensenThe city of Peoria, Illinois is one of the over-100 jurisdictions in the United States that elects using fair representation voting, and yesterday's elections in Peoria demonstrate why it works.

Yesterday, residents of Peoria, Illinois elected five at-large members of their City Council. Voters in Peoria have cumulative voting rights when electing at-large. That means that voters may select up to five candidates, and their five votes are distributed equally among them. If a voter only selects one candidate, their other four votes are not wasted, because all five votes will count for that candidate. If a voter selects two candidates, both will receive 2.5 votes, and so on.

Originally adopted in response to a lawsuit alleging that Peoria’s winner-take-all, at-large elections diluted minority voting rights, this method has been in use in Peoria since 1991. As a result, Peoria's voters have consistently elected African-American candidates and political newcomers to the City Council. In 2011, the City Council rejected an attempt to replace Peoria's cumulative voting system with single-member districts, finding that cumulative voting provided the best opportunity for minority candidates.

Voters have a history of exercising cumulative voting rights in Illinois. Prior to 1982, one house of the Illinois state legislature was elected in three-winner districts by cumulative voting.

The unexpected highlight of this year’s election was the first-place finish of Councilwoman Beth Jensen, who received 22.52% of the vote (on average, more than one vote from each voter), despite being a relative newcomer to the field. Councilwoman Jensen had previously served 19 months on the City Council after being appointed to fill the seat of Gary Sandberg, who passed away unexpectedly in 2013. Sandberg, whose supporters would often allot him all five of their votes, was a long-standing beneficiary of voters' use of cumulative voting rights. The election of Jensen brings Peoria's five at-large seats closer to gender parity, with two of the five seats now occupied by women councilmembers, serving as an example of how multi-winner elections promote gender parity.

This year’s election also saw the re-election of Councilman Eric Turner, one of two African-American members of the City Council, to a sixth consecutive term. Councilman Ryan Spain, who was the youngest person ever elected to the City Council in 2007, was also re-elected to a third term. The limited competition in this year's election--only six candidates ran for the five available seats--was likely the result of the presence of five strong incumbents. However, ranked choice voting, another fair representation method used in at-large city races in Cambridge, MA and Minneapolis, MN, would encourage greater participation by non-incumbents who may be discouraged by the vote-splitting concerns in a cumulative voting system.