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Cumulative voting: What's your opinion?

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I remember well the voting rights lawsuit brought against the City of Peoria in 1987, the federal suit that resulted in the cumulative voting system now in place for at-large City Council seats.

I'd only been covering City Hall a few months when the lawsuit was filed and the case made national news because it alleged that the method of electing at-large members at that time "prevented minorities from getting elected to the boards because the number of white voters outnumbered minorities."

There were some irony to that lawsuit in that it sought to change the method from five district and three at-large seats to 10 districts, thus increasing the number of districts in areas of the city that were predominantly minority. That was basically the system that had been in place from 1960 until 1972, when a drive headed by the incomparable Dorothy Sinclair got it changed to bring about the five district and three at-large seats.

So the voting rights lawsuit brought by Joyce Banks and others was settled out of court with the agreement that there would still be five districts and five at-large seats, with staggered elections every two years. The biggest difference was that the at-large election would be by cumulative voting.

"What the devil is cumulative voting?" was a fairly common question when it first came up because it was a method few had heard about before then.

The way it worked was that voters in at-large elections would be given the chance to cast five votes. They could choose to cast one for each of five candidates or mix them up, even to the point of casting all five of their votes for one person, known as bullet voting.

While City Council members expressed anxiety about the untested system, some fearing it would be the devil, it was adopted. And, actually, it hasn't been a nightmare at all, from what I can tell, from the first time it was used for the at-large council election in 1991.

But has it worked the way it was hoped by those who filed the lawsuit? It would depend, it seems, on what their expectations were at the time.

Banks said the only expectation she recalls was that the plaintiffs wanted to make sure there was at least one African American on the City Council. In that regard, she told H. Wayne Wilson recently on the At Issue program on WTVP, it has been successful. She said the voting results of the first two at-large elections in which the cumulative voting system was used proved that in that it is unlikely former councilman Nat LeDoux (1991) and incumbent councilman Eric Turner (1995) would have won seats to the council.

But Donald Jackson, president of the Peoria and Illinois chapter of the NAACP, disagreed, saying on that television program that outside of the LeDoux and Turner elections it has not resulted in more African Americans being seated on the council than could be otherwise expected from District. 1, which is predominantly minority. In fact, he said, he believes it has helped non-minorities, including incumbents Gary Sandberg and Chuck Weaver.

So should cumulative voting be ended? That is a question now being posed by the City Council and other civic leaders. One of the things being thrown around to replace it is, ironically, returning to 10 districts and no at-large seats. Both Banks and Jackson said that is what they would favor.

The public has been asked to participate in the discussion and is invited to a pair of community meetings where the issue will be discussed and the feelings of voters ascertained.

The first will be at 7 p.m. Oct. 26 at the Garrett Center at Bradley University. On Nov. 2, also at 7 p.m., there will be a meeting at River West Frank Campbell Community Room. Dr. Larry Aspin, who chairs the political science department at Bradley, will discuss his research and findings about the impact of cumulative voting in Peoria.

The Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service at Bradley is heading the discussion with support from several other groups, including the NAACP. The IPL will report to the City Council on the meetings so the council can decide how to proceed from there.

The council wants strong public input, said Mayor Jim Ardis. "I hope these community discussions will be well attended and provide the city council with strong feedback to make important decisions about the make-up of the council," he said recently.

The next at-large election is nearly four years away, but it remains to be seen if changing the voting method is as simple as a voter referendum or if it will take that as well as going back to the federal court for approval.

Also, if the method is changed there would be quite a bit of work involved with accomplishing it, including redrawing district boundaries.

But this is your chance, Peorians, to let your city government know your feelings on a very important subject. Even if you can't make the two scheduled meetings, let your feelings be known. It's your right; as important, it's your privilege.

Paul Gordon is editor of The Peorian. He can be reached at 692-7880 or editor@thepeorian.com

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).