Professor of political science at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, he was a delegate to the 1970 Constitutional Convention. He is now a commissioner of the Illinois Law Enforcement Commission and president of the Carbondale Library Board.


The great debate over Illinois' unique system of electing legislators

WHEN VOTERS go to the polls in Illinois in November, they will again be confronted with a scheme called "cumulative voting" for electing members of the Illinois House of Representatives. Each district elects three representatives and each voter is allowed three votes, which may be divided among two or three candidates or all be given to one. Giving all three votes to one representative is called "the bullet vote." The system is unique to Illinois. In 100 years no other state has cared to adopt it.

Not understood by voters
Cumulative voting is not understood by most voters and creates serious confusion among them. It prevents competition for House seats and thus reduces the amount of attention which might otherwise be given to state issues. It slights the legitimate concerns of racial, ethnic, religious and other groups. Cumulative voting creates rivalry and antagonism within parties and between fellow partisans which often exceeds that between the major parties and their candidates. And yet, like any system long in effect, it has created a large amount of vested interest and mythology which keeps it in operation even though its total working is highly damaging to the public well-being.

Cumulative voting was adopted in Illinois in 1870 at a time when a number of deep divisions political, economic, social and cultural all ran along a single line, that separating the north from the south. The original purpose of cumulative voting was to reduce the severity of that north-south split by insuring the election of some Democrats from the Republican north and some Republicans from the Democratic south. The inner logic of cumulative voting was so compelling that it accomplished in its early years exactly what its originators intended. As basic divisions within the state changed, however, and the need for cumulative voting dwindled, a band of supporters sought to have it continued indefinitely.

Cumulative voting worked best for the express purpose for which it was intended when the number of nominees in each district did not exceed three. Consequently, the legislature allowed the parties to limit the number of their candidates; and more often than not, over a long period, the total number in both parties was three. The results: no contest, no issues, and no public debate. That meant, in most cases, a free ride for incumbents. Because of this fact, it is understandable that incumbents have usually favored cumulative voting.

The system improved in 1970
Cumulative voting was one of the hardest fought issues of the Constitutional Convention of 1970. The dispute was not resolved and it was decided to put the question to a statewide referendum. The voters chose to retain the traditional system. It had the backing of Gov. Richard B. Ogilvie, Mayor Richard J. Daley, "Con Con" President Samuel W. Witwer, both political parties, the principal Chicago newspapers, most of the politicians around the state, and the Independent Voters of Illinois. What is surprising about the referendum is not that cumulative voting won, but that the vote against it was as great as it was. It was beaten in the 101 downstate counties, and prevailed by only a 5 to 4 ratio statewide.

But at "Con Con" there was the conviction that even if cumulative voting were retained, elections without contests had to go. Consequently, the 1970 Constitution provided that no party could limit its nominees in a legislative district to fewer than two. The idea was to insure a meaningful contest among at least four candidates for the three House seats in each district. There were at least four candidates in most districts in 1972 and 1974, although not each one of the four received his party's blessing in some districts. This has meant more attention to issues and campaigning, since one of the four is fated to lose, and no one of the four can be sure who it will be.

Still a faulty system
In spite of the significant improvement in the cumulative voting system which the 1970 Constitution mandated, serious defects remain. Voters do not understand the system, a situation which candidates, especially incumbents, are not unduly worried about. Incumbents plan on receiving "the bullet vote" from their strongest supporters. Some voters who have a basic understanding of how the system works are not aware that it is also used in the primary election, and others mistakenly believe that the principle applies to other offices as well.

Cumulative voting severely limits the number of meaningful contests in the election of House members. At present there is no more than one contest in each district for the three House seats. And in some districts not even that. There should be a meaningful contest for each House seat instead of only one in three. Single member districts with one-to-one contests in each would do much to elevate the level of public discourse upon election issues.

Perhaps the most serious defect of the

12 / November 1976 / Illinois Issues

NO Cumulative voting limits the number of real contests, creates tension and discord between fellow partisans and, on the whole, is hard to understand

present system is the way in which it creates tension and discord between fellow partisans. Each Republican and Democratic candidate knows that if the contest is a real one, he or she is actually more in competition with the other candidate of the same party than with the candidates of the other party. Intraparty strife and dissension is promoted. Each candidate goes his own way, seeking the "bullet," and too often denigrating fellow partisans in order to achieve it.

False claims
Supporters of cumulative voting attempt to make much of their claim that it fosters "minority representation." This notion lacks credence since neither party in Illinois can claim to be a minority party. What cumulative voting really does is to guarantee the weaker of the two major parties in each district one representative out of three, whether it deserves that degree of representation or not. That is a far cry from meaningful minority representation. Racial and ethnic groups, which have a much better claim to the minority role, generally are grouped into residential neighborhoods. Thus, a system of smaller districts, each electing one representative, would give true minorities a much better chance at meaningful representation and would greatly sharpen the discussion of issues. This could be accomplished by dividing each legislative district into two or three subdistricts, with one representative elected in each.

Most of the other arguments for cumulative voting are narrow or partisan ones which claim merit for it because it produces particular effects, such as the claim that X or Y, for example, could not win if the system were abandoned. There is now no way to know, of course, whether or not X or Y could win in one-to-one contests in smaller districts. Since the individuals named are usually outstanding legislators, it is probable that they could win on their merits as well as on the free ride that cumulative voting gives them. We'll never know until we try.

Cumulative voting represents an effort to cut and cramp a meritorious system the clash of personalities and ideologies in the free market place of political campaigns and elections to fit the ambitions and needs of particular individuals, parties and pressure groups. The time is long overdue for Illinois to give up a nineteenth century practice, which was designed for obsolete conditions and perpetuated because of the advantages it has given to the few at the expense of the many. 

14 / November 1976 / Illinois Issues

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