NEW IPO Logo - by Charles Larry Home Search Browse About IPO Staff Links


History of cumulative voting, 1870-1970:
Three is better than one

Cumulative voting has ended. This unique system, by which members of the Illinois House of Representatives had been elected since 1870, was rejected by the citizens of Illinois in a decisive vote on November 4, 1980. By the same vote, they also reduced the membership of the Illinois House of Representatives by one-third. Their vote of approval was on the so-called cutback amendment, the first amendment to the 1970 Constitution and the first successful use of the initiative power granted in the 1970 Constitution for the specific purpose of amending the legislative article.

This special edition of Illinois Issues delineates the origins and effects of cumulative voting, recounts past efforts against it, closely examines the recent, successful campaign to eliminate it, including an analysis of vote totals, and explores the welter of contentions concerning the now-defunct system. In sum, this report tells the story of how cumulative voting came into being, how it influenced the life of the state over the past century and how its passing is likely to affect the Illinois political system.

Sectionalism in Illinois

The sectionalism which had been formed out of the two distinct streams of emigration into early Illinois on the one hand from such southern stalls as Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, and on the other from New England, New York and Pennsylvania and which was so apparent in the state's politics by I860, continued thereafter. The two immigrant groups had to a considerable extent settled in the southern and northern halves of the state, respectively, and under the weight of the great sectional division of the Civil War had taken on clear-cut partisan identifications.

David Kenney, Basic Illinois Government (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1974), p. 92. (Reprinted with permission)

In 1870 a constitutional convention was called in Illinois. The major reasons for the call were corruption in Illinois government and the poor public reputation of the Illinois legislature. The new Constitution, which was adopted the same year, was more specific than the constitutions of 1818 and 1848. But except for important changes in the legislative article,1 it did not change the basic structure of Illinois government.

The changes in the legislative article were prompted by political and geographical polarization in the state. After the Civil War, and because of it, Illinois was divided into political halves; the northern half was controlled by the Republican party, and the southern half by the Democrats (see "Sectionalism in Illinois" below). For example, in 1867 the Illinois House had 85 members, 60 Republicans and 25 Democrats. Only eight (27 percent) of the 60 Republicans were from the southern half of the state, and only five (20 percent) of the 25 Democrats were from the northern half.

Malapportionment was another problem. The number of House Republican seats was proportionately greater than Republican vote totals, and, of course, Democratic representation in the House was weaker than it should have been.

Minority representation was the major issue faced by delegates at the 1870 convention. Because of the geographical and political divisions, the second party in each area of the state was not well represented. The fact that the Committee on Electoral and Representative Reform included some of the most competent men at the convention was an indication of the importance of the issue.

In February 1870, the Committee on Electoral and Representative Reform reported its recommendations. The committee's report contained the nucleus of the idea of cumulative voting, which was defined more concisely in a shorter report by Chairman Joseph Medill (a founder of the Republican party, owner-editor of the Chicago Tribune and later mayor of Chicago). Section 3 of his report stated: "In all elections of representatives aforesaid each qualified voter may cast as many votes

4 | Illinois Issues Special Report

for one candidate as there are representatives to be elected, or may distribute the same, or equal parts thereof, among the candidates as he may see fit; and the candidates highest in votes shall be declared elected."2

Medill's report provides a convenient summary of the committee's thoughts on minority representation. One section of his report addresses the "injustice and inequalities" of majority rule. Given plurality rule and single member districts, it argues, a significant proportion of the electorate (as much as 49.9 percent) in any given area will be unrepresented. Single member districts are therefore unfair, the report states, because they result in pure majority rule. But two member districts might produce undue minority representation; and purely proportional representation might lead to more than two parties. Thus, according to the report, the only possibility for fair and proportional representation under
Photo courtesy of the Illinois State Historical Library
Joseph Medill
a two party system lies with three member districts.

Sectional divisions received the most attention in the report. Entire sections of the state were totally controlled by one of the two major parties, a telling point to the delegates. The report concluded with a list of the advantages of the proposal: "The adoption of this great reform would do much towards abating the baneful spirit of partisan animosity and removing the temptations and opportunities which now exist for the corrupt use of money at elections. . . . There is nothing which will more effectually put an end to packing conventions than arming the voter with the three shooter or triple ballot, whereby he may fire 'plumpers' for the candidate of his choice and against those of his aversion. . . . It will enable the virtuous citizens to elect the ablest and purest man in their midst and secure to the legislative councils a large measure of popular confidence and respect."3

After brief debate, in which no adverse comment was made (see "In favor of cumulative voting" on p. 6 for Medill's arguments), the convention voted 46 to 17 to place the proposal for cumulative voting on the ballot for the state's voters to decide. On July 2, 1870, it passed. The vote was 99,022 in favor (nearly 60 percent) to 70,080 opposed. Most of the favorable votes came from the northern counties. In Cook County the vote was 20,139 to 2,244. Since the Cook County margin was nearly equal to the statewide margin, we may assume that Medill's Tribune, credited by some with the nomination and election of Lincoln, had some influence in determining the fate of the proposal. (See "Provision for minority representation" on p. 8 for final wording of 1870 constitutional provision for cumulative voting.)

Prior to the referendum, The Times of London predicted that "what Illinois thinks today the Union will think tomorrow, the discussion is passing from theory to practical approval."4 Several states did subsequently borrow various provisions from the Illinois Constitution, but cumulative voting was not one of them. The system originated, flourished and died in Illinois. In the first election under the new system, 153 representatives were elected: 86 Republicans and 67 Democrats. Thirty-six of the Democrats (53 percent) came from the northern part of the state, while only 23 Republicans (27 percent) came from the southern half of the state. Initially, the device was more effective in increasing the proportion of Democrats from the North, than Republicans from the South. Nevertheless, the second party in each section of the state was represented in greater numbers than before.

In terms of increasing second party representation, the new system worked. But it was not without imperfections.

Illinois Issues Special Report | 5

Photo courtesy of Illinois State Historical Library iisr04-3.jpg
Members of Ihe Illinois House of Representatives, 1879

At times Republicans and Democrats in a district would pool their strength on behalf of some special interest or geographical concern, thus frustrating the purposes of the Constitution's framers. Those who believed the two party system was exclusionary were of the opinion that cumulative voting had not solved the problem of minority representation at all. For example, in 1906, although the Prohibition, Socialist and Labor parties obtained 15 percent of total votes cast for representatives, they elected only three members (less than 2 percent) to the Illinois House.

Between 1870 and 1920 opposition to cumulative voting arose over two major issues. In some districts a practice developed whereby the second party nominated only one candidate. This meant that only three candidates stood for three seats and voters had no choice in the general elections. The practice became the norm; in all elections from 1916-1934, 55 percent of the 510 house contests presented voters no choice.5 Opponents of the system also claimed that the second party was overrepresented, i.e., cumulative voting permitted the second party to win a seat in a district where it did not have one-third of the vote and, in some instances, to capture two seats.

In favor of cumulative voting

I believe it is only a question of time when the principle of minority representation will be applied to all legislative elections, in Europe and America, from parliament or congress down to village alderman. . . .

It will give contentment to all classes of voters, secure representation for our long enduring republican friends in democratic Egypt, and give the swallowed-up and buried under democrats of northern Illinois a chance, also, of being heard in our legislative halls, by men of their own selection.

Joseph Medill quoted in Debates and Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of the State of Illinois, convened at the City of Springfield, Tuesday, December 13, 1869, Vol. II, p. 1727.

In the early 1900s, increased party control over nominations led to efforts to adopt the direct primary in Illinois. Six primary laws were passed between 1905 and 1927. In a series of decisions, the Illinois Supreme Court nullified several of these attempts. Finally, "[T]he sixth statute providing for a primary election was passed in 1927 and the Illinois Supreme Court reversed its previous decisions and declared that the [sixth] primary law was a valid measure. The legislature then proposed a. . . [new] primary law which did not include the cumulative voting provision. The Illinois Supreme Court, however, ruled that the cumulative voting provisions had to be applied in the primaries just as they are in the general election."6 The series of cases established two principles: party committees could limit the number of candidates in districts,7 but cumulative voting had to be employed in the primary. With respect to the latter conclusion, University of Illinois professor Clarence Berdahl stated that "those who wrote the cumulative voting provisions in 1870 could not have contemplated their application to the internal operation of political parties."8 The court, however, decided otherwise.

By the time of the Constitutional Convention of 1920 there was a great deal of opposition to cumulative voting and the final constitutional proposal eliminated it. In spite of the opposition from Chicago delegates, the proposal called for 153 single member districts. When the proposed constitution was submitted to the voters, it was rejected five to one at a special election on December 12, 1922. No further proposals to do away with cumulative voting appeared on the ballot until the separate proposition to abolish it was submitted to the voters with the 1910 Constitution.

From 1922 to 1970, incumbent state representatives were beneficiaries of the electoral outcomes of the system. As noted previously, in about half of the districts, one party nominated two candidates and the other party nominated one candidate, so that three candidates were elected without opposition.9 What competition there was took place in the primary. It is not surprising that this cozy arrangement, supported by both major parties, was challenged in the General Assembly only once between 1922 and 1970. This proposal, offered as Senate Joint Resolution 2 by Sen. James H. Forrester (R., Taylorville) on February 4, 1925, provided for reapportioning the state on a population basis because the legislature had failed to do so after the 1920 census. Forrester proposed a continuation

6 | Illinois Issues Special Report

Photo courtesy of Illinois State Historical Library iisr04-4.jpg
1917 General Assembly in joint session

of the status quo in the Senate: 51 districts, with Cook County limited to 19 districts. For the House, however, he proposed 172 seats, divided as follows: one from each county (102), two from each senatorial district in Cook County (38), and one from each of the remaining senatorial districts (32). The proposed constitutional amendment specifically eliminated cumulative voting. It was tabled on April 9, 1925.

Between 1920-1970 other reapportionment proposals were advanced from time to time, but only one of them was submitted to the electorate, and none of them proposed to do away with cumulative voting. Members of the Illinois House were quite content to continue cumulative voting, although they regularly discussed the question as an issue of constitutional revision.

Statewide vote for president v. share of seats, Illinois House and Illinois congressional delegation, 1920-1968

 Republican % of vote (president)Republican % of seats Illinois HouseRepublican % of seats Illinois congressional delegation
AVERAGE (excluding 1964): 51.6% 53.2% 57.3%
*All Illinois House members elected statewide in 1964 and are excluded from calculations.
Source: Adapted from Illinois Legislative Council File 8-395.

The General Assembly in 1933 took action to place the question of a constitutional convention on the ballot at the general election of November 6, 1934. In preparation for this, the Legislative Reference Bureau issued a pamphlet, The Constitution of Illinois. In a discussion of minority representation, this publication noted that "in the large majority of districts at each election only three candidates are nominated by the two major parties and the voters in effect merely ratify their selections." But the report hastened to add that the parties "cannot be fairly criticized for pursuing this practice because some limitation on the number of candidates is practically indispensable to the working of the system. . . . The condition which the present system of minority representation was designed to remedy no longer exists." Further on, the report stated, "On the other hand, the system has produced certain undesirable results that were not foreseen in 1870," primarily the absence of competition in general elections.10 The call for a constitutional convention received more "yes" than "no" votes, but because 56 percent of the voters did not vote on the question, the necessary majority was not obtained.

Two reports of the Illinois Legislative Council, published in the 1940s, touched on minority representation. Publication 43, Problems of Constitutional Revision in Illinois, which was issued in November 1941 pursuant to a study proposal by then-Sen. Richard J. Daley (later mayor of Chicago), merely noted that Illinois was unique among the states in using cumulative voting, and referred those who wanted more detail to a study by Charles S. Hyneman and Judson D. Morgan (see footnote No. 1). Six years later the council issued Publication 85, Constitutional Revision in Illinois (December 1947), pursuant to a study proposal by Rep. Bernice T. Van Der Vries (R., Winnetka), which noted that the system had resulted in no contest in about half of the districts in the previous November election. But it went on to point out that the system also made possible the retention in the House of a cadre of experienced legislators from both parties.

Two related effects of cumulative voting have been to divide the seats in the Illinois House of Representatives proportionately to votes cast for the parties and to cushion the impact of wide swings in the partisan vote. Neither party could count on an overwhelming majority in the House when there was a landslide vote for the head of the ticket. Election statistics compiled regularly by the Illinois Legislative Council show this tendency (see table). Using the presidential vote statewide as the indicator of partisan swing, it is clear that the partisan division of seats in the Illinois House more closely approximated the presidential vote than did the partisan division of the Illinois congressional delegation (elected in single member districts). The results of 1928 are a good example. Herbert Hoover, Republican candidate for president, received 57 percent of the vote statewide. Republicans won 60 percent of the Illinois House seats but controlled 79 percent of the Illinois congressional delegation. In addition, cumulative voting has worked to hold the partisan split in the Illinois House close to 50/50. Since 1920, only four out of thirty-one sessions have seen a partisan split greater

Illinois Issues Special Report | 7

Provision for minority representation

The house of representatives shall consist of three times the number of the members of the senate, and the term of office shall be two years. Three representatives shall be elected in each senatorial district, at the general election in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and seventy-two, and every two years thereafter. In all elections of representatives aforesaid, each qualified voter may cast as many votes for one candidate as there are representatives to be elected, or may distribute the same, or equal parts thereof, among the candidates as he shall see fit; and the candidates highest in votes shall be declared elected.

Illinois Constitution Article IV, Sec. 7, 8 (1870).

than 60/40 in the Illinois House. In contrast, the Illinois Senate has had a partisan division of 60/40 or better 20 times."11

Scholarly perspectives

The uniqueness of cumulative voting, as well as the controversy surrounding it, has attracted the attention of numerous scholars.12 Generally, they have concentrated on the extent of minority representation in the lower house and examined the effects of the system on party competition and nominations. Their studies also examined one or more of the major arguments against cumulative voting, and a representative list has been selected for illustrative purposes:13

  • The majority party does not always achieve a working majority.
  • The minority party receives undue representation.
  • The lower house is often controlled by the party in opposition to the governor's party.
  • The system does not achieve minority party representation that is, for third and fourth parties.
  • The voter is many times denied a choice in the general election when two parties nominate only three candidates.
  • The power of party officials is increased.

These criticisms also served to focus some of the research which attempted to provide responses, quantitative where possible. The findings of these studies can be succinctly summarized:

  • Cumulative voting achieved proportional representation for two parties that is, the share of seats in the House has been nearly equivalent to the electoral strength of the parties statewide.14
  • The majority party in a district rarely nominated three candidates for the three available seats even where it seemed probable that it could capture all three.15
  • Many of the alleged ills of cumulative voting were also found in Illinois Senate races and in single member legislative districts in other states.16

Most of the studies have been, on balance, favorable to cumulative voting, although they have recognized the problem of noncompetition in many districts. Some studies have argued that primary competition compensated for that deficiency.17

With respect to the representative criticisms of cumulative voting, the research showed:

  • The occasions when no party had a working majority were no more frequent in Illinois than in other midwestern states.
  • The minority party was not over-represented in Illinois.
  • The occasions when the House was controlled by the party in opposition to the party of the governor were no more frequent than when the Illinois Senate was controlled by the opposition party. The pattern follows those in other states.
  • The minority (that is, second) party has been more significant in the Illinois House than in any of the other states; it has held enough seats to be an effective force.
  • There are significantly more uncontested seats in Illinois general elections, but in primaries, Illinois voters have a greater choice of candidates than in other states.
  • If the power of party officials is greater under cumulative as opposed to plurality voting, it is necessary for the system to function as intended in order to insure substantial representation of the minority party.

George Blair concluded that "cumulative voting . . . has successfully achieved its initial purpose of achieving minority representation. Most of political conditions in Illinois which foster criticism of the system are not inherent weaknesses in, or results of the systa itself."18 According to Blaine Moore, a strong minority in the Illinois House was the most important issue. He concluded that a strong minority is necessary "to prevent the tyranny of an overwhelming majority."19

We can conclude that cumulate voting did achieve its primary purpose, namely to assure near-proportional minority party representation in Illinois House. According to the above studies, most of the apparent problem of cumulative voting were not unique to that system of representation. The findings on single member districts in other midwestern states, as well those for the Illinois Senate, support this argument.

Despite the conclusions of the academic research, however, there remained in the minds of some political elites (and certainly among some of the public), a sense that cumulative voting was a problem. In 1937, two academic observers (both in favor of cumulative voting) even suggested that there was "a strange unanimity of opinion that cumulative voting has been bad and ought to be abolished."20 When the entire question of constitutional revision arose in the state in the late 1960s, it was clear that one of the major issues would be the number of House members and the manner in which they would be elected. Indeed, this issue became one of the most heated and pivotal decisions of the 1970 Constitutional Convention.

8 | Illinois Issues Special Report

|Home| |Search| |Back to Periodicals Available| |Table of Contents| |Back to Illinois Issues 1982|
Illinois Periodicals Online (IPO) is a digital imaging project at the Northern Illinois University Libraries funded by the Illinois State Library