On April 4, Peoria, Illinois filled two city council vacancies using cumulative voting. Incumbent Sid Ruckriegel (who was appointed to fill the seat on an interim basis in 2015) and newcomer Zach Oyler were elected and will serve until 2019.
Ruckriegel and Oyler were elected citywide by the use of cumulative voting, which is used in more than 50 local jurisdictions across the United States. Peoria’s “equal allocation” form of cumulative voting is particularly straightforward for voters. Voter have as many votes as seats and pick up to as many candidates as there as seats. Their votes are then counted equally for those candidates. In Tuesday’s election voters could vote for either one or two candidates. When a voter picked only one candidate, that candidate earned two votes. When Peoria elects five candidates, as it does in regularly scheduled elections, a voter picking just one candidate gives that candidate five votes. A voter supporting two candidates gives that candidates 2.5 votes, and so on.
Cumulative voting cracks the winner-take-all principle, although in this case only modestly. Rather than needing to earn over the half the votes to be sure to win, cumulative voting in this election would have guaranteed the election of any candidate who earned two votes from just over a third of voters. Incumbent Ruckriegel led the field with 32.3%, followed by Oyler (26.7%), Rob Hanauer (21.4 %) and John Kelly (19.5 percent). Cumulative voting was also used in a highly competitive February 28th primary among seven candidates, where the top four candidates advanced. The results were: Oyler (22.9%), Kelly (22.3%, Ruckriegel (22.0%), Hanauer (13.9%), Amr Elsamny (13.9%), and Scott Kelsey (5.2%). Hanauer edged Muslim American Elsamny by only one vote, with neither a subsequent recount nor lawsuit by Elsamny changing the outcome.
Cumulative voting has contributed to the city electing more diversity since first being used in 1991 as part of a settlement to a 1987 Voting Rights Act challenge to its old winner-take-all at-large system. African Americans, who make up about one fifth of the city’s population, have won in every regularly scheduled cumulative voting election, including current councilor Eric Turner who was first elected in 1995.
But cumulative voting has had some rocky result as well, and Peoria remains a city with troubled race relations. This year’s election underscored the merits of ranked choice voting being used in such cases. Ranked choice voting gives voters more flexibility while at the same generating more reliably fair outcomes and incentives for candidates and voters to reach out across racial lines. In 1991, for example, the three candidates with the most support in the African American community in the primary fractured their vote, and none advanced. This year, ranked choice voting would have allowed Peoria to fold the February primary into the April general election, thereby saving money and providing more of an opportunity for backers of like-minded candidates Hanuaer, Elsmany and Kelsey to come together without the bitterness of the close primary and subsequent lawsuit.
Still, Peoria underscores the fact that winner-take-all isn’t the only way Americans hold elections. The entire state of Illinois used cumulative voting for electing its house of representatives up until 1980, and several studies – including one coming out of a commission co-chaired by former White House counsel and Congressman Abner Mikva and former governor Jim Edgar – have suggested it provided fairer elections and more collaborative governance. With polarized elections and dysfunctional governance in Congress it’s high time to rethink winner-take-all voting rules.