No Vote on Fair Districts in Illinois

Posted by Drew Penrose on November 08, 2016

The polls have closed in Illinois, and, when it comes to the Illinois state legislature, it has been another election in which the politicians chose their voters, and not the other way around.

Prior to July, it appeared that Illinois voters would have the opportunity to vote for a constitutional amendment that would take districting away from the general assembly and give it to an independent commission. However, that amendment was struck from the ballot for not complying with the constitution’s rules for amendments regarding redistricting. The opinion makes it unlikely that genuine independent redistricting can ever be on the ballot in Illinois.

Fortunately, there is another solution, rooted in Illinois’ history. From 1870 to 1980, Illinois was the only state to elect its state house of representatives with fair representation voting. Rather than single-winner districts, Illinois elected its state house in three-winner districts in which the voters had cumulative voting rights. That meant that if a candidate could win 25% support in a district, they would win one of its three seats. Most Democratic-leaning districts elected two Democrats and one Republican, while most Republican-leaning districts elected two Republicans and one Democrat. Overall representation was much fairer and more accurate.

Unfortunately, Illinois’ use of cumulative voting ended with the “Cutback Amendment” in 1980, in which the state house was made smaller and switched to single-winner districts. Since then, politics in Illinois has been much less representative. In fact, Illinois has had the same speaker of the house, Mike Madigan, for all but two years. Mike Madigan was a leading opponent of the amendment for independent redistricting this year.

Although Illinois may not be able to adopt independent redistricting, they could certainly undo the Cutback Amendment. Even better than cumulative voting, Illinois could lead the way by adopting ranked choice voting in multi-winner districts. Doing so would accomplish the goals of independent redistricting: a fairer and more competitive electoral environment. In fact, it would do that better than independent redistricting has in other states. Further, it could bring with it all the benefits that cumulative voting had, as described in the report of a bipartisan commission led by former Republican governor Jim Edgar and former federal judge Abner Mikva in 2001, who said that it tended to:

  • offer greater choice for voters in primary and general elections;

  • provide prospective candidates easier access to the electoral system;

  • provide greater representation for the minority political party in districts dominated by one party;

  • provide individual legislators with greater independence from legislative leaders; and

  • generate richer deliberations and statewide consensus among all legislators since both parties would be represented in all parts of the state.
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