By DAVID H. EVERSON
The Cutback at 10:
In 1980 Illinois voted to reduce the size of the Illinois House from 177 to 118 members and eliminate cumulative voting, the unique method of selecting three representatives from each House district by weighted voting. After the amendment passed but before it was implemented, Illinois Issues published a Special Report, The Cutback Amendment, in 1982. That report, of which David Everson was coauthor, summarized the history of cumulative voting and the events that led to the Cutback. The report also made a preliminary assessment of the likely consequences of the change and concluded that they were "not likely to be as great as the hopes of the advocates, nor the fears of the opponents . . . ." It is now a decade since the Cutback Amendment passed, time enough to assess its actual consequences.
In 1870 Illinois adopted cumulative voting and multimember districts for choosing members of the House of Representatives. The intent was to reduce the divisive effects of partisan sectionalism in Illinois by virtually guaranteeing minority party representation from all legislative districts. The new electoral system allocated three representatives to each House district and allowed each voter three votes. A voter could choose to cast three votes for one candidate, one and one-half
Although controversial over its entire lifetime, cumulative voting did work remarkably well in achieving its goal of minority party representation
votes for each of two candidates or one vote for each of three candidates. It was, of course, the use of the "bullet" — giving three votes to one candidate — that virtually guaranteed minority party representation, especially after the practice developed that the majority party in each district would confine its nominations to two candidates. An unintended consequence was that often the minority party only put up one candidate and voters were left with three candidates for three seats. Although controversial over its entire lifetime, cumulative voting did work remarkably well in achieving its goal of minority party representation. The effect was usually a House closely divided along party lines and a need for cross-party coalitions to enact contentious policies.
In 1970, when a new Constitution was approved, Illinois voters opted to retain cumulative voting by a healthy margin, although the issue was deemed controversial enough to be one of the few items voted on separately by the electorate. But the new Constitution itself contained a ticking time bomb — an initiative provision restricted to changes in the "structural and procedural subjects" of the legislative article. (An initiative is a
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constitutional amendment proposed by the voters through a petition process.) That provision eventually was employed to eliminate cumulative voting in Illinois. In 1980, after an ill-timed legislative pay increase, a campaign based on the limited initiative was launched to reduce the size of the House.
The so-called "Cutback Amendment" proposed to cut the number of House members from 177 to 118 and to eliminate cumulative voting. As might be expected, legislators and lobbyists led the opposition, while a cluster of reform groups supported the change. Proponents of the Cutback Amendment stressed the benefits to be gained. A smaller House would save the taxpayers money by reducing salary and administrative expenses. They also asserted that too many bills were introduced in the Illinois House, contributing to legislative logjams at the end of session. They asserted that the legislative process would become less chaotic in a post-Cutback paradise.
The Illinois Issues' special report contended that "the costs for the highly professionalized legislature are not likely to be reduced by the cutback . . . [and] there will still be a large number of bills introduced. . . ." These arguments were rooted in what was already known about the sources of legislative costs and workloads. They were more directly related to the size, diversity and problems of the state and its individualistic political culture than to the size of the legislature. The report maintained that a smaller House might be more manageable and somewhat more predictable.
An important additional argument for the Cutback was the contention that one-on-one legislative elections would be more competitive and would therefore increase legislator accountability. Patrick Quinn, leader of the Cutback Amendment statewide campaign led by the Coalition for Political Honesty, charged that "this complicated and collusive election system is consciously designed to protect incumbents and to limit political competition and accountability." Charles R. Bernardini, a former state chair of the Independent Voters of llinois-Independent Precinct Organization, countered, using Massachusetts' experience in cutting the size of its House: "Incumbents are favored. Newcomers have a harder time being elected." (Bernardini and Quinn debated the question, "Should the size of the House be cut?" in Illinois Issues, January 1980). The Illinois Issues special report predicted that increased competition for incumbents was unlikely. That contention was based on the experience of the Illinois Senate and other states with single-member districts. One-on-one elections did not necessarily produce strong interparty competition. Other factors, such as the partisan makeup of the district, were involved.
Opponents of the Cutback concentrated their fire on the likelihood that it would decrease minority representation. Almost by definition, minority party representation was threatened. In the process, however, opponents expanded the term "minority" beyond its original meaning of partisan minority to include both demographic and philosophical minorities. In particular, there was strong concern that the representation of women and blacks would be reduced by the change to single-member districts without cumulative voting.
Comparing the number of women in the Illinois House with the Illinois Senate and other states having single-member districts, the Illinois Issues report estimated that the "percentage of women in the House will drop nearer the national norm." With respect to black representation, the report predicted that "a switch to single-member districts will not automatically result in a percentage reduction in black representation in the House." Again, these predictions were based on the experience of the Illinois Senate and other states. As to "philosophical independents," that is, representatives from the minority partisan party in the district, the report concluded that there might well be a reduction in their members.
How have the arguments for and against the Cutback fared over the last 10 years? Writing about legislative costs in the Almanac of Illinois Politics — 1990, Craig A. Roberts and William P. Dorn observed, "the administrative costs of running the General Assembly have not declined as reform proponents said they would." For example, one might expect that with fewer legislators, staff support could be reduced. Rather than being reduced, however, the partisan staff in the House has more than doubled from 90 in 1980 to 219 in 1989.
'the administrative costs of running the General Assembly have not declined as reform proponents said they would'
Nor did the expected drop in the number of bills materialize. According to the Almanac, in the four general assemblies preceding the Cutback an average of 3,512 bills was introduced in the House. In the four general assemblies after the Cutback an average of 3,491 bills was introduced, a decline of a mere 21 bills per session. And in 1987-88 a whopping 4,311 bills were introduced, breaking the prior decade's record of 4,035 in 1975-76. By this measure, the House workload has not declined. Indeed, from the point of view of the individual member, it has increased by about a third. In 1979-1980, about 20 bills were introduced per member in the House. In 1987-88, the comparable figure was 28 bills per member.
As for increased electoral competition, it has not happened. Indeed, the low turnover from defeat in the general election for Illinois House seats — and the concomitant incumbent success rates — have begun to rival those in congressional elections (and some are calling for term limitations in Illinois). While the incumbent reelection rate was a paltry 79 percent in the 1982 election, the first after the Cutback and redistricting, the rate is highly misleading. In 1982 many incumbents were pitted against other incumbents as a dual result of the Cutback and redistricting (see "Legislative Elections: reviving an old part-
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nership," Illinois Issues, March 1983).
In 1984, according to the Almanac, 96 percent of House incumbents were reelected; in 1986, 99 percent; in 1988, 98 percent; in 1990, 95 percent. From 1984 through 1990, 426 House incumbents ran and 414 were reelected (97 percent). This compares to an incumbent success rate of 95 percent in the three House elections preceding the Cutback.
It is possible to argue that the 1981 legislative redistricting, controlled by Democrats, nullified the theoretically beneficial effects on interparty competition of the switch to single-member districts. Artful cartography was used to create many one-party districts and to protect incumbents of both parties. This, however, is precisely the point. The theoretical advantages of one-on-one competition assume conditions seldom found in the real world, where competitiveness at the legislative district level is frequently decreased by partisan gerrymandering and the relative advantages of incumbents in such elections. The argument that one-on-one competition would inevitably increase interparty competitiveness ignores the fact that the incumbent success rates of Illinois senators in single-member districts were already very high prior to redistricting.
None of the proponents' claims were realized. The Cutback did not save money, reduce the number of bills introduced in the House or increase the competition for House seats. Nevertheless, in combination with the 1981 reapportionment, it did trigger some changes. The most significant of these has been the strengthening of the majority party's leadership in the House.
What about the doomsayers? The predictive record of the opponents of the Cutback is nearly as dismal. Their primary argument was that minority representation would be reduced. The concept of minority representation, however, no longer was limited to partisan minorities. The term "minority" was expanded to cover partisan, philosophical, geographical and demographic minorities, especially women and blacks. In addition, opponents suggested that a smaller body might be easier for the party leadership to control.
What were the effects of the Cutback on minority representation? In percentage terms, the ranks of both women and blacks were increased slightly in the House in the 1982 elections, the first after the Cutback. The actual numbers were, of course, reduced because the body was sliced by one third.
What has happened since 1982? First consider the representation of blacks. According to the Almanac the number of blacks in the Illinois House during the 1970s was regularly either 14 or 15. Post-Cutback, the number has been a constant 14. This means that the proportion of blacks in the House has not declined but has increased from about 8 percent to about 12 percent.
How did the representation of women fare during the 1980s? In the two general assemblies prior to the Cutback, the number of women in the House was 23 (13 percent) and 25 (15 percent). Those figures were above the 10 percent average nationwide for that time. Since 1980, the number of women in the House has ranged from a low of 19 (15 percent) in 1982 and 1984 to a high of 21 (18 percent) in 1988.
Nor can a case be made that the Cutback reduced the numbers of demographic minorities. In fact, compared to other mid-western states and the U.S. as a whole, Illinois has a higher percentage of both black and female legislators. Indeed, 5 percent of all blacks elected to state legislatures across the country serve in Illinois. The ratio of black legislators to blacks in the population as a whole is nearly twice as great in Illinois as it is in the nation as a whole.
On the issue of "philosophical" minorities, the answer is somewhat different. In the pre-Cutback era. House members who belonged to the minority party in their district were often designated by the press as "independents" and could be considered "philosophical" minorities. If opponents of the Cutback were wrong about the representation of blacks and women, they were right about the fate of these "independent" House members. There is evidence that such legislators did indeed deviate more from the party line in voting. The Cutback virtually eliminated these moderate-to-liberal Chicago Republicans and independent suburban Democrats. And it probably helped create a House more dominated by its leadership (see "The Class of 1980: The last of the 'mavericks' look back," Illinois Issues, December 1986).
The Cutback did not save money, reduce the number of bills introduced in the House or increase the competition for House seats
As a result of the Cutback, redistricting and hardball legislative campaigning, the Democratic leadership has commanded solid majorities in the House. Over the decade the Democrat majority has dominated the Republican minority from 67-51 to 73-45. Thus, the House is more partisan and its Democratic speaker, Michael J. Madigan of Chicago, more powerful. The speaker clearly controls the legislative agenda and the committee system. It is impossible to determine which should be credited most for the Democratic dominance: skillful map-drawing by Madigan, his shrewd use of campaign resources or the Cutback. All three contributed. But it is certain that the smaller House is more homogeneous and more under the thumb of leadership. And this is not all bad. Strong leadership can deliver — as in the temporary two-year income tax increase of 1989.
Overall, the special report was right. The consequences of the Cutback have been much less than proponents promised or opponents feared.
David H. Everson is professor of political studies at Sangamon State University with a joint appointment in the Illinois Legislative Studies Center. He is also editor of Comparative State Politics.
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