How Fair Voting Can Transform Illinois Elections

Posted by Michelle C. Whittaker on February 10, 2016

President Obama addressed the Illinois General Assembly today, where he served for nearly a decade before his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004. There was a lot of speculation about what his speech might cover. During his final State of the Union address, Obama called for a need “to change the system to reflect our better selves.” One priority topic for the General Assembly and citizens of Illinois: redistricting reform and how to hold elected leaders accountable.

The state has been unable to meet its obligations for the last six months because of an ongoing budget standstill. Governor Rauner remarked in his State of the State address that “Citizens don’t trust their government.”  It’s no wonder there is lack of trust. Legislators and the governor are squabbling in Springfield while citizens are left scrambling to meet the needs of children, the elderly, the mental health community, and more. As Obama noted in his address to Springfield, "In a big, complicated democracy like ours, if we can’t compromise, by definition, we can’t govern ourselves."

Voters want to have faith in their representatives to do the job they're elected to do. So where does trust begin?

The Illinois General Assembly is responsible for drawing congressional and state legislative districts and the results have been notably lopsided. According to FairVote’s analysis of representation and competitiveness, 104 out of 105 U.S. House incumbents in Illinois were re-elected to office from 1998-2008. Of the 18 U.S. House seats, Democrats hold 12 — only two of which are not considered “safe” for the party. It's clear: Illinois political system is rigged.

When politicians get to draw the lines for their own benefit (called gerrymandering) voters lose. Instead of voters getting to pick their leaders, gerrymandering enables politicians and political parties to maintain control. That's why there were only 4 competitive races in 2012 (where the margin of victory was 5% or less) for seats in the Illinois House of Representatives.  

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Beyond redistricting reform

Today, the movement toward independent redistricting commissions is gaining momentum across the country. From former leaders in Congress to grassroots citizens groups in Virginia and Illinois, taking the power to draw districts out of the hands of politicians is a good first step to make the process less corrupt and empower voters —  but it doesn’t take the politics out of districts.

Relying on independent commissions alone is like having a single, small lamp to light your whole house and deciding (by committee) how to change the lightbulb to get more light.

Commissions may decrease the likelihood of an incumbent winning, but they still produce districts that are uncompetitive or do not fairly represent the voters on multiple levels. Even when they can evaluate partisanship, limits remain. These commissions cannot guarantee competitive elections, partisan fairness, or accountability. Why? Because independent commissions maintain a winner-take-all system for a representative democracy. It's changing the lightbulb, not the lighting system and leaving some people in the dark.

Representative democracy isn't winner-take-all

When it comes to legislative bodies (like state assemblies or Congress) representatives are supposed to represent the people yet winner-take-all districts leave nearly half the voters without any representation. The need for fair representation across political, socio-economic, and even racial lines will only increase as communities continue to rapidly change.

Where a voter lives can determine if their voice will be represented — especially in districts that have been controlled by one party for any length of time. As a conservative in liberal New York, National Review columnist Reihan Salam argues that, “As long as we have single-member districts, it is inevitable that some group of people will be disadvantaged by the lines we draw.” Salam goes on to say, “If our goal is to create legislative districts that truly reflect their electorates, our best bet would be to give up on single-member districts altogether and replace them with multi-member ones.”

Illinois electoral reform advocates should incorporate multi-winner districts with ranked choice voting as a key structural change. In communities across the country ranked choice voting elevates elections by opening up politics giving all voters a meaningful voice throughout the election. Voters rank as many or as few candidates in order of choice. All first choices are counted, and the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. If your first choice is eliminated, your vote instantly goes to your next choice. Candidates are elected by earning a high enough share of the vote related to the number of seats being filled.

Ranked choice voting ensures that as many voters as possible are able to elect a candidate they like. As a result, the elected candidates better represent the diversity of political viewpoints within the community. The majority of voters will always elect a majority of seats, and voters in the minority are able to elect their fair share of seats as well. 

It's a new twist to Illinois’ long history of fair voting.

For over 100 years following the Civil War, Illinois was the model of fair voting and productive government in the United States. To address post-Civil War gridlock and partisan polarization, state representatives were elected from multi-winner districts using cumulative voting —  an American form of proportional representation. These district leaders represented the spectrum of voters and fostered greater collaboration. Fair voting also gave political voices in the minority a platform. “You always have that minority view out there, one that does not support the view of the majority,” noted former Illinois Senate Minority Leader Emil Jones. “In a winner-take-all election there is no one there to also express the minority view.”

As it turns, President Obama acted on this understanding in 2001. He introduce a bill with Republican Tom Walsh that would have put a state constitutional amendment on the ballot to restore fair voting to Illinois.

If we want politics to reflect our better selves, Illinois leaders need to stop playing politics with district lines and give voters the freedom to choose candidates that best represent their voice no matter where they live."The more Americans use their voice and participate," Obama concluded, "the less captive our politics will be to narrow constituencies." It's time for the Land of Lincoln to be bold and set an example for the whole nation: make ranked voice voting with multi-winner districts part of the redistricting reform solution.


Image Source: Daniel Schwen via Wikimedia Commons

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