The Initiative that Created the Modern Organizational Structure of the General Assembly
Topic: Politics & Public Management
Prior to 1980, the structure of the General Assembly looked very different. Instead of having one House representative per House district, each district contained three state representatives, plus a Senator. This resulted in bigger legislative districts and more members of the General Assembly than today. Former Gov. Pat Quinn (2009 to 2014), then a private citizen, led an innovative to reduce the number of state representatives and change how districts were structured. Known as the Cut Back Amendment, the initiative was put to referendum and approved by Illinois voters in 1980. In effect, the modern organizational structure of the General Assembly, where one state representative was elected from one House district, was created and began in 1982.
Background: Illinois Cumulative Voting System
The General Assembly operated on mostly the same organizational structure from 1870 to 1980. The Illinois Constitution of 1870 established a system where voters in each district actually had three votes to cast for state representative. At the ballot box, citizens had the option to give their three votes to one candidate or spread them among the rest who were on the ballot. This is system is often referred to as cumulative voting and resulted in each district having three House representatives and one Senator.
The purpose of originally enacting the cumulative system was to ensure greater proportionality of representation. The idea is that by giving voters more than one vote and having more than one person elected in the district, that would ensure a greater likelihood representation would come from both parties for each district. For the most part, that was often the result.
The Spark that Prompted Reform
Shortly after the 1978 election, members of the General Assembly voted to increase their pay from $20,000 to $28,000 a year (roughly $111,776.69 in today’s dollars) during a lame-duck session. The move sparked public hostility and the conversation quickly turned to reforming the system outright. Pat Quinn, then a private citizen and attorney from the west side of Chicago, helped organize a movement to reduce the number of House members and change the state’s cumulative voting system to the current straight voting model.
The Cut Back Amendment was introduced in 1980 and the referendum was held in November. The initiative was primarily sold to the public as a way to save money with the actual structural reforms being a by-product.
Opponents of the initiative filed suite arguing that it was not legal to combine two separate subjects (reducing House membership AND changing Illinois’ cumulative voting system) and present it as one question on the ballot. Nevertheless, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the proposed referendum in Coalition for Political Honesty v. The State Board of Elections.
The referendum passed by a large margin and process to reform multi-member-districts to single-member-districts began in 1981. By 1982, the process was fully implemented. Figure 1 below illustrates the referendum results.
Redistricting reform and the change to a straight voting system yielded mixed costs and benefits. On one hand, by reforming districts where one legislator represented one district created a system where legislators could me more direct and responsive to constituents and their needs. Moreover, under the old cumulative system of voting, a member can be elected to the General Assembly with less than 50 percent of the vote. It could be argued that reducing the amount of House members made it easier for legislation to move and pass with 59 less votes needed to pass legislation.
On the other hand, the reforms likely reduced bi-partisan representation from each district because they were often had a Democrat and Republican. Additionally, the re-districting reforms made it possible for whoever the majority party was in the General Assembly to more easily centralize power and legislative control.
Most importantly, reducing the size of the General Assembly probably did not save much money because the size of Illinois’ public problems outweigh the termination of the 59 legislator’s salary and benefits (e.g. Illinois’ pension problem). In effect, the original intent of the initiative was most likely to send a message to lawmakers rather solve any fiscal issues.
Despite this, there have been attempts to return to Illinois’ old model. In 2001, then state representatives Sara Feigenholtz (D) and Rick Winkel (R) sponsored an amendment to the Illinois Constitution that would reform the General Assembly’s current model back to the cumulative system and divide the state into 39 districts. The amendment did not gain much traction. The following year, former State Senators Barack Obama (D) and John Cullerton (D) tried to push a bill for Illinois to adopt instant run off voting, a system were voters rank their preference, but it also died in session.