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To improve Arizona Legislature, consider cumulative voting

Legislators hold a special session February 4, 2010, at the Capitol in Phoenix. Although Arizona has been a trailblazer in the women’s suffrage movement in the last decade and recently in electing women to high public office, the Republican-dominated Arizona Legislature has refused to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.  (AP Photo/Matt York, File)

Legislators hold a special session February 4, 2010, at the Capitol in Phoenix.  (AP Photo/Matt York, File)

Arizona’s legislature is consistently ranked among the most polarized in the nation. Polarization reduces legislative productivity in the states, and Arizona’s legislature is no exception to this trend. The legislature typically ranks among the bottom dozen states in total laws approved. Polarization also results in poor representation for members of political parties not in office. How might Arizona’s legislature be reformed to reduce the negative effects of polarization?

Illinois’s government rarely provides policy successes worth emulating but prior to 1982, legislators in that state were elected in a manner that reduced the effects of polarization. Surprising by today’s standards, it was commonplace for Republicans to be elected from Chicago and for Democrats to be elected from downstate, rural Illinois. The electoral system then in force helped to bridge the urban-rural divide and improved representation for diverse interests. A similar system can help in Arizona.

Prior to 1982, voters in Illinois used cumulative voting to elect their state legislators. Each house district was represented by three representatives. Voters each submitted three votes. They could vote three times for one candidate (a so-called bullet vote) or divide their votes among two or hree candidates. Political parties controlled which candidates appeared on the ballots with their partisan labels (so, not just anyone could run for office as a Republican or Democrat).

Under the system, only the most lopsided districts elected slates of representatives all from a single party. Given that most districts were not lopsided, the parties tended to nominate one or two candidates each. (Nominating more candidates would dilute a party’s vote and allow the other party to win more seats with fewer candidates.) The system allowed for Republicans from Chicago and Democrats from downstate Illinois to get elected. The system worked as intended. Cumulative voting was adopted during Illinois’ 1870 constitutional convention for the explicit purpose of reducing the urban-rural divide and improving representation.

Imagine an Arizona House of Representatives modeled in part on the system used in Illinois. There would be Republicans elected from liberal bastions like Phoenix, Tempe, and Tucson. Democrats would be elected from conservative places like Mohave and Yavapai Counties.

James Strickland

James Strickland

Partisanship and ideology would no longer be reinforcing cleavages that divide legislators. More work could be accomplished for the good for the state. According to a long-time lawmaker in Illinois, under cumulative voting, legislators “operated in a less partisan environment because both parties represented the entire state.”

Importantly, nearly every voter would be represented by at least one official he supported. Republicans in Phoenix, Tempe, and Tucson and Democrats in Mohave and Yavapai Counties alike would all have representatives. Under Arizona’s current electoral system, these large constituencies are unnoticed, and representatives are divided by both party and ideology. This results in more polarization, nastier interpersonal conflicts, and more gridlock. According to another long-time Illinois lawmaker, the “lack of civility began when we did away with cumulative voting.”

Adopting cumulative voting would help alleviate these issues in Arizona, but each district must have an additional representative for the reform to help fully. The 30 additional representatives would provide new voices for Arizona’s growing population by allowing for greater ideological and racial diversity in both parties. Such a change would require a constitutional amendment.

Unfortunately, Illinois’ experience with cumulative voting came to an end in 1982. Two years earlier, as part of an anti-establishment campaign to cut legislative pay, activist (and later governor) Pat Quinn succeeded in convincing Illinois voters to cut the size of the Illinois house by a third. Voters were angry because of a hefty pay raise legislators had approved for themselves, and most looked past the state’s scrapping of cumulative voting. Nevertheless, the benefits of cumulative voting in Illinois remain well-documented. There is no shortage of op-eds recommending that Illinois revert to the old system. Arizona voters should consider giving it a try.

James Strickland is assistant professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University in Tempe.

One comment

  1. Even better than cumulative voting would be ranked choice voting in multimember districts of three or five seats each. In order to yield the benefits that Prof. Strickland describes, cumulative voting requires that parties, candidates and voters all know how to game the system. Illinois showed that this is possible, but why bother? Ranked choice voting almost completely eliminates the need for strategic voting and strategic nomination. It is used to elect national and regional legislatures in Ireland, Northern Ireland and the upper house in Australia. In the U.S., it has been used for city elections in Cambridge, Massachusetts since about 1940.

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