We Need Truer Democracy
Ending taxation without representation -- twice
This weekend, Americans celebrate the birth of a nation: July 4th is the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, which began the American Revolution. The rallying cry of 'no taxation without representation' resonated among American colonists, who lived under the laws made by a distant English Parliament, a legislature that arrogantly claimed to fully represent the Americans though the colonists didn't elect them. Rejecting that system, our Founding Fathers forged a better democracy, one more representative of the people.by Dan Johnson-Weinberger
This weekend marks the anniversary of another important but little-noticed event of American democracy. On July 2nd, 1870, Illinois voters approved cumulative voting to elect the state House of Representatives. This was the first time in American history that a state legislature would represent not just the majority of voters, but also the minority.
Traditional elections are winner-take-all: whoever gets the most votes wins the right to represent all the voters -- including those who voted against him. This leaves the political minority in an odd place. They are supposed to be represented in the legislature by the person who they rejected at the ballot.
One of the first to recognize this as a problem was a leading statesman of the 19th century, Joseph Medill. Medill was the publisher of the Chicago Tribune and a major force in creating the Republican Party. After the Civil War, Medill found the Union still deeply divided, and his own state of Illinois split down the middle: northern Illinois was Republican and southern Illinois was Democratic. Using traditional winner-take-all elections, no Democrats were elected north of Springfield, and no Republicans south, leaving both groups unrepresented.
To solve this and other problems, Illinois held a constitutional convention in 1869 -- almost a century after the Philadelphia convention produced the U.S. Constitution. As a delegate to the convention, Medill pushed through cumulative voting to make the Illinois legislature more reflective of the people. His convention report reads:
"Only one part of the people are permitted to be represented. True, they may all vote for the choice of representatives, but those persons only receiving the highest number of votes, may serve in a representative capacity. . . . In what way does the agent of a majority represent the political principles or financial wishes of those of opposite views who voted against him? Is this not tyranny rather than democracy? -- the tyranny of an arbitrary majority imposing its will on the forcibly excluded minority? Who can defend or justify such a system on republican grounds? . . . It is true, the minority must yield to the majority, but it does not follow as a sequence that the minority must therefore by suppressed and have no representation at all."
To avoid this disenfranchisement, the Medill plan of cumulative voting elected three people from a district instead of just one, and gave each voter three votes, which the voter could cast cumulatively (all three votes for one candidate). This gave political minorities, like northern Democrats and southern Republicans (and in the 20th century, Chicago Republicans and DuPage Democrats) one of the three representatives from a district, while the majority party elected two people.
Some argued that cumulative voting was unnecessary; the candidate of the majority adequately represents the minority as elected representatives speak for all of their constituents, not just those who voted for them. This is, in Medill's words, a "dangerous assumption." It is the same self-justifying argument expounded by British loyalists during the Revolution: the American colonists were represented in Parliament, as members considered their interests, whether the colonists elected them or not.
This argument was decisively rejected by the American Revolution. Almost a century later, when Illinois voters approved the Medill plan of cumulative voting, they rejected the same argument. The only true representatives are those that the voter actually elects.
Unfortunately, the proud Illinois tradition of representation for political minorities ended more than a century after it begun, when in 1980, as part of an effort to save money, the state switched to single-member districts and winner-take-all voting. Today, cumulative voting is not widely used, though that is changing: in the last decade, a wave of smaller cities, including Peoria, have implemented the system. There is also growing interest in reviving cumulative voting for the Illinois House.
"So long as immense masses of citizens feel that they are unrepresented by the agents of their opponents, the acts of the law-making body will be regarded with disfavor, and their purity with suspicion." There are echoes of the American Revolution in Medill's call for minority representation. We would do well to honor the spirit of our Founders with a renewed drive to implement the Medill plan in Illinois and throughout the Union, to give voice to political minorities in our legislatures, and finally end taxation without representation.
Dan Johnson-Weinberger is executive director of the Midwest Democracy Center, a new non-profit think tank based in Chicago that is focusing most of its educational efforts on cumulative voting and its past and perhaps current history in Illinois. For more information on cumulative voting in Illinois, see www.prairienet.org/icpr.
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