City Leaders Seek Input on Cumulative Voting System
Peoria may change the way it elects City Council members provided city residents are unhappy with the outcome.
Bradley University’s Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service (IPL) is leading an initiative to give Peoria citizens a chance to weigh in on whether the city’s equal-and-even cumulative voting system is proving to be a help—or detriment—to Peoria. The Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, Neighborhood Alliance, African-American Leadership Alliance, NAACP and League of Women Voters are joining IPL in its efforts.
“One of our goals is to have more people participating in something that will shape how our City Council is made up for a long time,” said Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis at a press conference held at the Heartland Partnership.
“It’s important that we have a strong collaboration from the community,” added IPL Director Brad McMilan, also noting that the community groups “have no pre-conceived agenda. We want to hear from the public.”
The impetus to hold discussion amongst Peoria County residents was the 2010 census, which brought about the need to redistrict. Community discussion follows a string of six City Council elections that all used the cumulative voting format. Now the city’s business and community leaders want to know: Is the cumulative voting system the best system for Peoria, is the system accomplishing what was intended and is it allowing minorities fair representation on the city council?
Public meetings were held for open discussion on October 26 at 7:00 p.m. at Bradley University’s Garrett Center and on November 2 at 7:00 p.m. in the River West Frank Campbell community room. Bradley University’s Chair of the Political Science Department, Dr. Larry Aspin, was present at each meeting to highlight points from his research on the impact of cumulative voting in Peoria. The meetings provided opportunities to expose Peoria’s public to various potential voting systems and to question whether the current voting system best serves the city.
IPL will provide a report to Peoria’s City Council members to help them decide whether a referendum item on the spring ballot will be necessary for residents to vote on a different system to elect city leaders. The council will need to approve a referendum before January 2 of next year in order for it to appear on the ballots in March. The council will discuss the matter during its November 15 meeting.
Recapping Cumulative Voting
In a compromise agreed to by Peoria, the plaintiffs and the federal court following a voting rights lawsuit in 1987, the city’s current equal-and-even cumulative voting system was instituted in 1991. African-American voters who desired to see an increase in the number of minorities serving on the City Council brought the lawsuit. Peoria uses equal-and-even cumulative voting to elect its five at-large city council members while the remaining five seats are decided using district elections. Elections take place every four years.
The cumulative voting (CV) system requires representatives to be elected from districts with more than one representative. In each of these “multi-seat” districts the number of votes Peoria residents have equals the number of seats needed to be filled. Unique to the cumulative voting system is the fact that voters are not required to give only one vote per candidate; rather, they can allot as many votes as they wish to the candidate(s) they desire to see elected. In a race with five open seats, for instance, a candidate could receive up to five votes if a person voted for only one candidate. If a person voted for two candidates, each candidate would receive 2.5 votes. If a person voted for four candidates, each would receive 1.25 votes.
Does CV Help Minorities?
Worth noting is the manner in which this type of voting system affects minority representation on the City Council. If voters in a political minority all voted for the same candidate in a three-seat election, the minority could win representation with approximately 25 percent of voters, despite its minority status. Cumulative voting helped elect two African Americans to the City Council in 1991. In April 1999, Eric Turner ran as one of two African Americans in a nine-candidate race and finished first. Cumulative voting was thought to have attributed to the outcome. This was the first citywide, at-large Peoria election in which an African-American candidate finished at the top.
Cumulative voting also has a history of helping other minorities. Jim Montelongo, Peoria’s first Latino councilman, was elected using this system as was Beth Akeson who came in fifth place in the April 2011 elections. Akeson is the second woman to fill an at-large City Council seat under the current cumulative voting system.
McMilan says one of the goals of open community discussion will be to discover if there is a way to draw more districts to increase diversity. “Will a new (voting) system enhance opportunities for minorities to serve on the City Council? There are geographic areas of Peoria where minorities are more concentrated. With the cumulative voting at-large system, it’s not realistic that you’re going to elect more than one at-large minority council member.”
McMilan says one option under consideration is implementing eight City Council districts and two at-large districts. If the city decides to change its current system, McMilan says changes will need to receive approval from the federal district court.
But any and all changes are contingent upon community input. “If the community is happy with (the current system), it will remain as the status quo,” says Mayor Ardis.