What if Congress was elected by proportional representation?
Illuminating lessons from Illinois’ 110-year history with cumulative voting -- more bipartisanship, less polarization, more voter choice, better representation
A number of towns and small cities in the US have a history of using one of several proportional representation electoral methods designed to foster broad representation, more voter choice and decreased partisanship. But only one US state, as far as I know, has ever used a proportional representation method to elect its legislature. That’s the state of Illinois.
For 110 years until 1980, Illinois used a method called cumulative voting. Instead of single-seat "winner take all" districts, legislators were elected by three-seat districts and a candidate needed 25% of the popular vote to win one of the three seats. Illinois’ experience with this form of proportional representation has a lot to teach us about how to address the severe crises of US democracy.
Fortunately when I worked for the Center for Voting and Democracy (now known as FairVote), we conducted a project interviewing a number of former Illinois state legislators who had been elected by proportional representation. We intended to make a documentary, but our ambitions were bigger than our budget so the documentary never happened.
But myself and a couple of others poured through the hours and hours of raw video footage. Some of these state legislators went on to become members of Congress, US Senators, federal judges and law professors. Among the list were well known names like US senators Paul Simon and Carol Mosely Braun (the first black woman elected to the Senate), US representatives Abner Mikva, John Porter and more.
But before many of them found political fame in higher office, first they all had been elected to the Illinois House of Representatives by cumulative voting. Here, for the first time, we present some of the insights from these savvy leaders via excerpts from the transcripts.
When we conducted the interviews, many of the former legislators were then elder statesmen and stateswomen, most of them retired, so with fewer political axes left to grind. It was a joy to listen to their illuminating reminiscences. What these former legislators had to say about Illinois’s use of this system speaks directly to our national dilemmas regarding toxic partisan polarization, declining voter interest, low competition, poor representation, and a loss of political ideas.
Indeed, as a result of using cumulative voting in three-seat districts, Illinois enjoyed bipartisan representation from all parts of the state, including frequent sightings of now extinct species – Chicago Republicans and downstate Democrats, all of them elected in strongholds of the opposing party.
Here are some excerpts from these revealing interviews, grouped by major themes.
BETTER (AND BIPARTISAN) REPRESENTATION IN ALL PARTS OF THE STATE; LESS URBAN/SUBURBAN SPLIT
Congressman Abner Mikva, Democrat: “Proportional representation gave a voice to a critical minority so that Democrats in the [heavily GOP] suburbs had a spokesperson from their district who they could rally around and generate some party activities. Similarly, in Chicago you had Republican representatives and these Republican outposts in a city that was dominated by the Democratic Party.”
Lee Daniels, Republican, former Speaker of the House in Illinois: “I thought proportional representation worked well. I thought it gave a guarantee of minority representation. In the Republican caucus, frequently we had Republican legislators talking about the needs of the city of Chicago. Today, generally speaking, there are very few [elected] Republicans that come from the city of Chicago so that the views of the city are very difficult to be communicated within our [party] caucus.”
Daniels, who served in the state legislature for thirty years, was elected under both a three-seat PR system and a single-seat, winner-take-all system, and speaks with great conviction about the advantages of proportional representation.
Congressman John Porter, Republican: “I thought it led to a much more independent and cooperative body that was not divided along party lines and run by a few leaders on each side. And it allowed individual legislators to work with members on both sides of the aisle in, I think, a very collegial atmosphere.”
Harold Katz, Democrat, former representative from the Chicago north suburb of Glencoe, a heavily GOP area: “The House [under proportional representation] was a very exciting place. It seemed to be the center of activity in the state capital. It was like a symphony, really, with not just two instruments playing, but a number of different instruments going at all times.”
Congressman Mikva, Democrat: “Between us we represented just about every organized point of view within the district. And that’s something that you can’t do with just one representative. If you represent the Democrats, the Republicans will feel voiceless; or you represent the organization, then the independents will feel voiceless. Or represent the conservatives, and the moderates will feel voiceless. Whereas with this multimember district, and particularly with proportional representation, it made it possible to give a legitimacy to the delegation that you don’t have with single-member districts.”
What these former state legislators experienced with proportional representation is that nearly every Illinois three-seat district had two-party representation. Both parties won seats in all parts of the state. As a result, Republicans didn’t ignore cities, and Democrats didn’t ignore Republican strongholds. Illinois was not carved up into balkanized red and blue partisan fiefdoms.
In fact, for many years the Speaker of the House was a Democrat elected from heavily GOP DuPage County. When you only need 25 percent of the vote in a three-seat district to win a seat, Democrats in conservative areas and Republicans in liberal areas could win one of those seats. Congressman Porter was so impressed by his experience of PR in Illinois’s state government that he began working with other members of Congress to bring proportional representation to elections for the federal House of Representatives.
REDUCED PARTISAN POLARIZATION AND BALKANIZATION
Both Republicans and Democrats saw other advantages to PR that addressed the dilemma of partisan polarization and regional balkanization.
Giddy Dyer, Republican, female state legislator: ““I think the lack of civility began when we did away with [proportional representation] and the multimember districts. Because now, it’s just like two armies in full regalia fighting each other. There’s just total squashing of many good ideas.”
Congressman Porter, Republican: “By its nature the system encouraged moderate viewpoints to be brought to bear. There’s a great deal more independence for each member than there is under the present system.”
Congressman Mikva, Democrat from Chicago: “This idea of balkanizing the state that way, it’s not healthy. [Proportional representation], I think, helped us synthesize some of these differences, made us realize even though we were different than the downstaters, different than the suburbanites, that we also had a lot in common that held us together as a single state.”
Congressman Porter, Republican: In Illinois’s three-seat districts with PR, “we operated in a less partisan environment because both parties represented the entire state.”
Giddy Dyer, Republican state legislator: “I get back to the reason it’s so important to have some Republican representatives from the city of Chicago is that they, many of them, had children in the Chicago public schools, and rode the CTA [metro transit system], and cared about Chicago’s problems. And now, it seems to be polarized, between the city, the suburban ring, and downstate.”
Intra-party diversity. Illinois’ experience showed that PR allowed for a broader spectrum of representatives, not only bipartisan but also within each party. A liberal three-seat district would elect two Democrats and one Republican, but the two Democrats often would be two different types of Democrats—a liberal Democrat and a moderate Democrat, or an independent Democrat and a conservative Democrat.
It was the same with the Republicans. Voters all over the state, whether Democrats, Republicans, or independents, had a vote that counted for something. In Judge Mikva’s Chicago district, one Democrat represented the Daley machine, Mikva represented a more independent Democratic perspective, and the dean of the John Marshall Law School was the elected Republican.
INDEPENDENT CANDIDATES AND LEGISLATORS BEAT THE PARTY MACHINES
Congressman Mikva, Democrat: “Proportional representation gave the opportunity for outsiders like me to win a seat. I never could have gotten elected if the party could have simply beat me one-on-one. I didn’t have a lot of money.”
Mikva was an independent Democrat who ran against the Democratic Party machine in Chicago. He said that under proportional representation, because a candidate needed to win only 25% of the popular vote, legislators were not so beholden to monied interests and political machines. You could run independent of the political machine.
Giddy Dyer, Republican state legislator, who had to fight her own party’s machine to get elected: “My county chairman was from the other branch, the right-wing branch of the Republican Party, and I would never have been, quote, asked to run by that county chairman. So when I decided to run, I really had to form my own campaign committee and not depend on the party for any help…And Gene Hoffman in the neighboring district was in the same situation. He was a schoolteacher, and very strong on education, and from the moderate wing of the party, and he had to build his own organization to run.”
Congressman Mikva, Democrat: “You ended up with more independent people in the legislature. They weren’t that responsible to a particular political party. Paul Powell couldn’t dominate all of the downstate Democrats because Paul Simon could get elected thanks to proportional representation. Richard Daley couldn’t command all of the Cook County Democrats because Tony Scariano, Bob Mann, and others got elected…The representatives in both parties had a lot more freedom. Everybody understood that you didn’t have to toe a particular party line, or you didn’t have to kowtow to a particular leader. So it generated a lot more independence within the legislature…it really gave the local, legitimate parochial concerns better presence and better voice than they have now.”
With Illinois’s PR method, independent candidates could run and win without the backing of the party machine or a lot of money because they only needed support from 25% of the voters in the three-seat district. Related to this, using cumulative voting in three-seat districts had campaign finance implications, because a candidate could run a grassroot campaign on a shoestring budget.
Congressman Mikva: “You could appeal to a much smaller set of voters. That involves a much smaller amount of money being spent on them…advertising, media, so on.”
Campaign finance reformers should take note that candidates were able to run grassroots campaigns without the backing of their party machines or huge amounts of private campaign financing. Money played a much-reduced role.
BETTER FOR WOMEN AND MINORITIES
Proportional representation didn’t serve only political minorities like Republicans in liberal areas and Democrats in conservative areas. It also helped women and racial minorities win representation.
Emil Jones, former African-American Democratic president of the state senate:
“The district I was elected from was a district that comprised only about 20 percent of African American constituencies. So, what I did was I organized the African American community. And, the other three candidates, they split the white vote. And I received a certain percentage of the white vote, and I ran second and won.”
Barbara Flynn Currie, Democrat, served for forty years as a member of the Illinois House of Representatives: “As a result of proportional representation, my district became the first in Illinois history to send two women from the same party to the state legislature, myself and Carol Moseley Braun.”
Currie was the longest serving woman in the Illinois legislature, and for twenty-two of her forty years, she was the House majority leader.
Adeline Geo-Karis, a Republican legislator elected under both PR and winner-take-all systems: Proportional representation “made it easier for women and minorities to get elected.”
Barbara Flynn Currie, Democrat, former House majority leader: “In the days of proportional representation, we had African Americans representing majority white districts, and white representatives coming from districts that were predominantly African American.”
PR even helped elect black Republicans, but now the Republican Party in Illinois—as in the rest of the nation—is virtually lily-white.
When you listen to these Illinois legislators, Republicans and Democrats alike, one quality stands out: their belief that the other side deserved representation. They took seriously the Golden Rule of Politics: “Give unto others the representation you would have them give unto you.” They believed doing so was good for their state’s welfare and good for the political process. Compare that view to national politics today, to the down-and-dirty, zero-sum game it has become in this age of Donald Trump in which hyper-partisan leaders will do whatever it takes to beat the other side.
Indeed, Chicago Tribune political reporter Rick Pearson wrote that the rolling coalitions which formed in the Illinois House “often helped lead to centrist pragmatic policies.” The Chicago Tribune has opined that “many partisans and political independents have looked back wistfully at the era of cumulative voting. They acknowledge that it produced some of the best and brightest in Illinois politics.”
BYE BYE CUMULATIVE VOTING…
So if cumulative voting in three-seat districts was so great, what happened? Why did Illinois get rid of it in 1980?
It was the dawn of the Reagan “government is the problem” era, and the Illinois state legislature, failing to take the temperature of the times, foolishly voted itself a hefty pay increase. With a populist battle cry of “get rid of the politicians,” an opportunistic politician sponsored what was known as the Cutback Amendment—a statewide ballot measure that sought to “cut back” the size and cost of state government by shrinking the number of elected politicians by a third. Little recognized, unfortunately, was that the ballot measure also did away with cumulative voting.
But the return to winner-take-all, single-seat districts quickly led to the by-now-familiar litany of problems: little competition, partisan polarization, regional balkanization, low voter turnout, and so on. It virtually wiped out the Democratic Party in DuPage County and other conservative areas, and killed the GOP in Chicago and many other cities. It led to so many lopsided, one-party districts that ever since then, including most recently in 2020, nearly half of Illinois’s House races have been uncontested by one of the major parties because everyone knows who will win most races. This is the legacy of "winner take all" in Illinois, indeed in all 50 states.
The return of "winner take all" elections also has led to an alarming concentration of power in the hands of the “Four Tops” – no, that’s not a Motown singing quartet, that’s the majority and minority leaders in both the House and the Senate. According to the Tribune’s Pearson, the Four Tops now “use the cudgel of the potential loss of campaign cash to dictate the issues to be considered and how a member should vote. The formation of a true bipartisan coalition now is rare.”
The Illinois story strikes at the very heart of our notions of “representation.” Millions of “orphaned voters”—Republicans living in Democratic areas, Democrats in Republican areas, and third-party supporters and independents everywhere—usually do not have a voice. But in Illinois under proportional representation, Republican legislators were elected in the blue liberal cities, as were Democrats in the red conservative areas. Independents, moderates, and the wings of the parties had a place at the table; so did women and minorities. In Illinois, purple America had a home.
Despite the fact that a range of proportional representation voting methods are used in most established democracies around the world, as well as in a number of US cities (many of them put into place to settle voting rights lawsuits to facilitate diverse representation), PR has yet to make inroads into crucial levels of American government, especially in the Congress and state legislatures. Illinois used cumulative voting, but Ireland and Australia’s national Senate are elected using an even better method known as proportional ranked choice voting (those countries call it “single transferable vote”). P-RCV has all the benefits of cumulative voting but it also has other desirable features that prevent spoiler candidates, split votes and wasted votes that can sometimes happen with cumulative voting.
A bill called the Fair Representation Act, H.R. 3863, has been introduced by Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia, which would implement proportional ranked choice voting for electing the US House of Representatives and for the most part get rid of the bitter process of redistricting. The various 50 US states are often laboratories for innovation and experimentation for each other. The Illinois experience with proportional representation has a lot to teach us as we grapple with the demanding challenges that our failing US democracy is facing.
Steven Hill @StevenHill1776
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