Illinois drives to revive cumulative voting

by Jack Santucci // Published April 21, 2006
Chicago Sun-Times, April 16, 2006

In the old days, kids, there was a Republican Party in Chicago. No, really. Your grandpa wouldn't kid you about that.

See, we had this funny way of electing people to the Illinois House. Each district sent three people to Springfield, but almost always two came from one party and the third from another. That meant we had liberal Republicans from Chicago and independents from Downstate. Heck, there were even Democrats from DuPage County.

From 1870 to 1980, Illinois elected its state House of Representatives using cumulative voting. The state was divided into districts that elected three members each. Rather than awarding all three seats to the plurality winner, the majority party usually won two seats, and the minority party in most cases won one. Cumulative voting made for a more diverse legislature, letting minority groups from African Americans to Chicago Republicans win some seats.

With the bathwater, out the baby

In 1980, though, voters approved an amendment shrinking the legislature, eliminating three-seat districts and adopting winner-take-all elections. Misguided populist reformers branded the referendum as punishment for a legislature that had voted itself a 40% pay raise. Voters focused on the elimination of seats; most overlooked the step backwards to winner-take-all, single-member elections.

Back to the future of democracy?

Led by conservatives, Illinois reformers are collecting signatures to put cumulative voting on the ballot this November, but the measure historically has had bipartisan appeal. Sen. Barack Obama supports cumulative voting, which again would make room in the legislature for conservative Democrats and urban Republicans.

The Midwest Democracy Center, led by former FairVote general counsel Dan Johnson-Weinberger, promotes good government electoral reform in midwestern states, particularly the drive to revive cumulative voting.

Voter choice and accurate representation: we can have both at once

The Illinois Assembly on Political Representation and Alternative Electoral Systems in 2001 released a great report on the history and quality of cumulative voting elections, which you can download in PDF at FairVote's page on IL's Drive to Revive. Or download the executive summary (PDF 1MB):

"During the past two decades of experience with single-member districts, voter choice has declined from that under cumulative voting."

The executive summary has great stats on contestation before and after cumulative voting's repeal (hint: the number of non-contested seats goes straight up after 1980). Note many redistricting reformers want more competitive districts. To that end, they propose independent commissions draw 50/50 GOP/Democrat districts.

But choice and accurate representation are mutually exclusive in single-member districts. Competition - i.e. a tight race - requires a 50/50 district. But a 50/50 district also means just under half the voters go without representation. Cumulative voting in three-seat districts eliminated the mutual exclusivity of these aims; the majority got two seats, the minority got one, and voters had more choices.

[FairVote's cumulative voting resources]
[Drive2Revive listserv for activists and interested persons]