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The case for cumulative voting

For more than a century, Illinois thought political pluralism was a good idea. It expressed its commitment to such pluralism by electing the House of Representatives through cumulative voting. The 177 members of the House were elected from 59 larger districts, each having three representatives. This ensured that the political minority in each district could win a seat in the House if they could earn the votes of about one-third of the district.

Judge Abner J. Mikva
Judge Abner J. Mikva

Some of the brightest and most independent members of the House came from the "minority" seat in their district. Frequently, these state representatives were the only elected officials of their party in the entire region. This gave voice to the political minority, not only in Springfield, but in other political battles as well. State representatives worked on other campaigns and gave their party a chance to build an organization. Some of the political changes that took place in Illinois during that period were the direct result of cumulative voting. When I ran for Congress in the suburbs of Chicago, in a district that had not elected a Democratic congressman in 80 years, I built on the base that elected Democratic state representatives had created in previous elections. When Richard Ogilvie was elected sheriff of Cook County, (imagine a Republican getting elected to anything in Cook County today) he built on the Republican presence in the city of Chicago that came from the elected Republican state representatives.

Since cumulative voting was used in the primary elections as well as the general elections, there was even pluralism within the political parties. This gave an opportunity for independents those not part of the party patronage machines a chance to compete for election. Paul Simon won his seat in the legislature by running in the Democratic primary against the party choices. That's how I won my first election in 1956. Without cumulative voting, it is very hard for maverick voices in either party to get elected to the House, and it becomes much easier for the party leadership to dominate the nomination, the election, and the performance of the members.

The original purpose of three-member districts was to make the two-party system work better. And it succeeded. Cumulative voting ensured that the minority party had at least one elected representative in each region.

What was the downside of this unique political institution of cumulative voting in Illinois? The biggest downside, and the main reason that it was repealed in a constitutional referendum, was the confusion that the system produced. Many people never quite understood how their votes could be divided.

Another argument that was successfully exploited against cumulative voting was that it led to a larger number of House members and that eliminating cumulative voting would allow for a reduction of the number of legislators, with a resultant saving to the taxpayers. Of course, the House could be of any size with or without cumulative voting. If there were any value to reducing the size of the House, it could have been done without switching to single-member districts. If the voters wanted a smaller House, we could have created 39 districts with three members in each elected by cumulative voting.

More fundamentally, the arguments for reduced size are somewhat misleading. The minor savings in salaries and expenses for the legislators is more than offset by the reduction in democratic values. The smaller the House, the less voice each constituent has, and the more voice that each member has. The extreme of the argument for smaller size would be to have a House of one member.

The real reason why the people backed the Cutback Amendment, which abolished cumulative voting, had

(Continued on page 6)

Judge Abner J. Mikva is a visiting professor of law at the University of Chicago. He has served as White House counsel and as Chief Judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He began his career of public service in 1956, and served five terms in the Illinois House of Representatives and five terms in the U.S. Congress. He co-chairs a task force on Political Representatives in Illinois with former Governor Jim Edgar. Earl Struck, President and CEO of the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives, is a member of that task force.

The opinions and views of guest commentators are their own and may not represent those of the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives or the electric co-ops of Illinois.


Illinois Commentary (continued from page 4)

little to do with cumulative voting itself. As in the case of most substantial changes in the political system, the people were responding to a great deal of unhappiness with the legislature as it had been performing. The legislature had voted itself a pay raise in the period immediately after the 1978 election. Pay raises are always unpopular, and when they are enacted by a "lame duck" legislative body they are perceived to be sneaky. It was easy to capitalize on that unhappiness and to blame cumulative voting. Incidentally, the largest percentage of turnover in the United States Congress occurred after a similar "midnight" pay increase in the 19th century.

A lot of the voting public are unhappy with the way the present legislature is performing. While the issue is not midnight pay raises, it is a sense that the real issues that concern the people are not being addressed.

Special interests are perceived to have too much influence in the way things happen. The "Four Tops" (as the legislative party leaders are known) are seen as having too much power. Perhaps this is an appropriate time to ask the people to reconsider their repeal of cumulative voting. At a time when pluralism is again considered to be a positive value, maybe we can go back to a system that worked very well in our diverse state.

A call for a return to cumulative voting will be difficult. It is not likely that such a proposal would be initiated in the legislature. But a drive to put the proposition on the ballot via initiative would have a chance of success. Some of the trade unions and business groups have already expressed support or interest. So have some of the state's leading newspapers. Even the League of Women Voters, one of the principal backers of repeal of cumulative voting in the first place, has decided to study the issue again. A drive to revive cumulative voting would not be easy, but it would be worth the effort to give Illinois an enhanced political pluralism.


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