Answers About The Questions At The Top Of The Ballot

Nov 3, 2014

Illinois' statewide ballot asks voters to answer five questions: a pair of constitutional amendments, and then a trio of non-binding referendums.
Credit Amanda Vinicky

Illinois voters on Tuesday won't just have the chance to decide on who'll be their next governor or state representative. They'll be asked if Illinois should change its constitution. And to weigh in on a trio of non-binding questions legislators could use to guide decisions down the line.

It's one thing to pass a law. Politicians do that all the time; Illinois passed 500 last year alone.

But constitutional amendments are different. They're relatively rare, and harder to get through (and once changes are made, they're difficult to undo).

"I think we have amended our state constitution about 12 times and that's it. We just don't do it. We are not inclined to tinker with our constitution," said Ann Lousin, a professor at the John Marshall law school. She helped write Illinois' constitution in 1970. And she's almost right -- since then it has been amended 11 times.

It possible - likely even -- that Illinois will add two more to the list by the time this election is over; a recent poll from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute shows wide support for both.

The first question actually piggybacks on a constitutional amendment passed a couple decades ago, when voters approved a so-called Crime Victims' Bill of Rights. Requiring things like that a crime victim be notified of court proceedings, to be present in court, and to be able to make a statement when a perpetrator's sentenced.

Polly Poskin, who heads the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault says in order to get that done, advocates made compromises.

"We agreed at the time that there would not be the enforcement mechanism," Poskin said. "That we would get Bill of Rights in, we would see how it was implemented and and how it worked. And then in time we would see for the necessity of the enforcement mechanism."

Time passed. And Poskin says, it has become clear that putting some "teeth" into it is is a necessity.

That's what this new amendment would do. It has its critics, still; the Illinois Bar Association for one, which fears it'll add a bigger burden to an overburdened judicial system. And Lousin, who, in an opinion piece published in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, called it "flawed."

That was her description of the second constitutional amendment, too, which also established a Bill of Rights of sorts, this one protecting voters.

Let's go back to April, when it was first introduced by House Speaker Michael Madigan, who told a legislative committee: "The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that all citizens have an opportunity to register and vote and to prevent the passage of inappropriate voter suppression laws and discriminatory voting procedures."

To which Republican Rep., Ron Sandack of Downer's Grove, asked, "is anyone aware right now of people being denied the right to register or actually cast a ballot based on some of these protected classes that are being expanded?"

Madigan answered by giving examples of states requiring voters to show IDs; a practice that advocates say disproportionately blocks poor and minority voters.

Critics of the plan say Illinois doesn't need it. The measure pretty much mirrors rights guaranteed in the federal Voting Rights Act.

That's why Lousin says it's unnecessary; but she also points out that while it extended special protections to voters based on their income, sexual orientation, or race, it leaves out special protections to someone based on their political party, or if they have a physical or mental disability.

To enshrine either of these proposals in the Illinois constitution will require 3/5 of voters to say "yes."

There are three other questions on the statewide ballot, too. But these are non-binding referenda. It's like using the election to poll voters, to gauge popular opinion.

One asks if Illinois should raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour, a topic that's played a large role in this year's midterm election, including in the race for Illinois governor.

Another asks if Illinois should require health insurance to cover birth control. Illinois law already requires that, but backers -- like Planned Parenthood's Brigid Leahy -- say given court rulings, this sends a message.

"What happened was the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Hobby Lobby case, and now some employers can refuse to provide full coverage for basic womens' health care," Leahy said at the Governor's Day state fair rally, where she was collecting signatures from people pledging to vote "yes" on the question. "And what we want to do is let Illinois lawmakers and leaders know that this is an important issue to the people of Illinois, and if that if there are things that they can do to help people get access, we want them to do it."

The third non-binding question asks voters if they favor adding a tax surcharge on income over a million dollars, with the money going toward education.

Speaker Madigan, who also heads the state's Democratic Party, is sponsor of that plan too (he'd tried putting it on the ballot as a constitutional amendment, but -- in a rare defeat -- was unable to garner enough support and so settled for making it a referendum).

"Those that will be called upon to pay this surcharge have done pretty well in Illinois, they've done pretty well in America," Madigan said. "We're simply saying to them, 'you've done well, in this county' and we'd like to call upon you to do a little more for those that are involved in lower education."

Madigan admitted early on that, in some years, he'd be paying that surcharge.

So, of course, would Republican candidate for governor Bruce Rauner, whose wealth has been a huge point of contention in his race against Gov. Pat Quinn.

Republicans say it's obvious why Democrats tacked the referendums onto the ballot; they say it's a thinly-disguised attempt to get more Democrats to the polls.

Even if voters say "yes," don't look for Illinois to implement a millionaire's tax anytime soon. Doing that would require -- you guessed it -- an amendment to the constitution. It's worth noting that all of the questions on the ballot were put there by the General Assembly. It's much harder for regular citizens to do.

Two constitutional amendment questions proposed by residents this year were knocked off the ballot by a court, which ruled that neither met the narrow requirements the constitution lays out for citizens' initiative, despite collectively gathering more than a million signatures on petitions in support of getting a spot on the ballot.

An effort to take lawmakers' ability to draw their own legislative districts is expected to try again in the future, by making revisions to its redistricting plan.

The campaign for the other proposal knocked from the ballot was funded and promoted by Rauner; it would have instituted legislative term limits.

Rauner sought to use it against Quinn, is seeking to becoming one of Illinois' longest-serving governors (if he's re-elected and serves out his term, Quinn will have been governor for a decade).

It's an area where Quinn should be able to relate: back in 1994 he tried to get a term limits question on the ballot, but the courts deemed the plan unconstitutional.