Spotlight: Illinois

Brass Statute of Abraham LincolnFollowing the civil war, Illinois suffered from severe partisan polarization between the Republican-controlled northern half of the state (including Chicago) and the Democrat-controlled south. Like the partisan polarization today, this trend resulted in most legislative districts in Illinois being strongly Democratic or strongly Republican, utterly excluding moderates and members of the minority party from every district's representation.

From 1870 to 1980, Illinois elected its state house of representatives in three-winner districts using cumulative voting to avoid the post-Civil War gridlock. With cumulative voting in three-winner districts the single biggest or strongest political group could not dominate elections. Instead, each three-winner district fairly reflected more of the diversity of its voters, with Republicans winning in Democratic strongholds and vice-versa.

There have been a number of attempts to revive the system since its repeal. Peoria, Illinois adopted cumulative voting for itself in 1991 as a result of a voting rights act lawsuit, and serves as an example of the benefits of cumulative voting in Illinois. 

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When the Illinois Constitutional Convention convened in 1870, Delegate Joseph Medill (also editor of the Chicago Tribune) made the case for extending cumulative voting rights in multi-winner districts to address Illinois's extreme north-south polarization. The Convention supported Medill's proposal, and the voters approved it the same year.

The new system worked as intended. Most districts elected at least one member of each major political party, and the system fostered inter-party cooperation and bipartisan legislation. The system was presented to the voters again in 1970, and again the voters approved of the use of cumulative voting, with 56 percent support.

In the 1970's, attorney Robert Bergstrom began a series of campaigns to shrink the state legislature and use exclusively single-winner districts. His petition drives failed in 1973–74 and again in 1978. However, following 1978, a controversy regarding legislative salaries led to a successful drive to reduce the size of the state house, and in 1980 the "Cutback Amendment" made it to the ballot. Only 44 percent of those casting a vote in 1980 voted on the Cutback Amendment, but it nonetheless passed, and since 1982 Illinois has elected its house of representatives from single-winner districts.

In a series of interviews conducted in 1998, Illinois political leaders described the benefits of the system. For example, John Porter – Republican Illinois state representative from 1973 to 1979 and Member of Congress from 1980 to 2001 – said that "it led to a much more independent and cooperative body that was not divided along party lines," and recommended that it be used to elect the U.S. Congress. To hear Illinois lawmakers describe the system in their own words, watch this video:

In 2001, a commission chaired by former Republican governor Jim Edgar and former Democratic congressman and federal judge Abner Mikva concluded that the system offered greater choice for voters, provided candidates easier access to the electoral system, provided better mixed representation by party, provided individual legislators greater independence from party leaders, generated richer deliberations and statewide consensus, and provided the opportunity for adapting into a truly proportional system. It worked for Illinois for over one hundred years. It would work for Illinois – and the rest of the country – today.

Since its repeal, leaders from both major parties in Illinois have repeatedly called for the return of fair representation voting. In 2001, Democratic Rep. Feigenholtz and Republican Rep. Winkel co-sponsored a measure to again elect the house of representatives from three-winner districts while returning cumulative voting rights to the voters. In 2001, Barack Obama – then a junior state senator – co-sponsored a bill with Republican Tom Walsh to return Illinois to multi-winner districts and cumulative voting.

Voters still have cumulative voting rights for local elections in Peoria, Illinois. It was adopted there to resolve a lawsuit brought under the Voting Rights Act in 2001 and its success at representing not only Peoria's African American population but the full political diversity of Peoria led to the city choosing to retain the system in 2011.



Postcard saying \In 1991, the city of Peoria settled a Voting Rights Act suit filed in 1987 by adopting cumulative voting for the five at-large seats on its city council. That means Peoria voters may select up to five candidates when voting at-large and have their five votes distributed equally among those candidates. If a voter only selects one candidate, their other four votes are not wasted, because all five votes will count for that candidate. If a voter selects two candidates, both will receive 2.5 votes, and so on.

Peoria has regularly elected women, racial minorities, and political newcomers to its City Council under this system. The last at large election held in Peoria maintained the diversity of the Council, with two women and one African American man elected to office. In 2011 Peoria elected its youngest council member ever, Ryan Spain, using cumulative voting. Spain won re-election in 2015.

In 2011, the City Council rejected an attempt to replace Peoria's cumulative voting system with single-member districts, finding that cumulative voting provided the best opportunity for minority candidates. Cumulative voting has been and continues to be a success in Peoria, demonstrating the success and feasibility of proportional representation voting in the United States. 

IGPA_Cover.PNGIn 2001, a bipartisan task force led by former Republican governor Jim Edgar and former Democratic Congressman and White House Counsel Abner Mikva issued a report calling for the return of proportional representation voting to Illinois. 

The Illinois Assembly on Political Representation and Alternative Electoral Systems report noted several problems in Illinois since the repeal of fair voting. Among them were lack of choice and competition, low turnout, high campaign costs, limited representation of voters, and a lack of deliberation in the Illinois legislature. As the report noted, "Many factors contribute to this disturbing lack of competition, but none is more significant than the use of the winner-take-all system to elect Illinois state legislators."

After carefully evaluating election reform on a variety of metrics, the task force unequivocally proclaimed that the best option for remedying these issues would be the return to fair voting in multi-winner districts. Specifically, it stated that a return of cumulative voting rights would tend 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 the other party;
  • generate richer deliberations and statewide consensus among all legislators since both parties would be represented in all parts of the state; and
  • be more readily adaptable to the existing electoral machinery than other alternative systems like party list voting.

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