State of the State: Voters May Get a Big Say on Big Policy in November

Jun 1, 2014

Christopher Z. Mooney
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
In the November 2014 general election, Illinois voters will have a fairly rare opportunity: to weigh in directly on very significant changes in policy. In California and many other states, voting on initiatives and referenda is a routine sideshow in the electoral circus. But in Illinois, statewide voting on policy questions is rare. In the past 20 years, this has only happened four times. But this year alone, Illinois voters could face up to four ballot measures to amend the state’s Constitution. And for a change, at least some of these provisions could have a big impact on how government works in Illinois. 

Statewide ballot measures in Illinois are almost exclusively referred to the voters through a three-fifths majority in each chamber of the General Assembly. Since the adoption of the 1970 Constitution, the sole exception has been the 1980 Cutback Amendment, which was a direct initiative, a measure placed on a ballot not by the legislature, but by a petition of voters. In 23 states, voters can push initiatives on a whole range of policy issues, but in Illinois, this type of lawmaking is severely restricted. Article XIV, Section 3 of the Illinois Constitution states that an initiative amendment “shall be limited to structural and procedural subjects” having to do with the General Assembly. The idea is that state lawmakers might not like some legislative reforms that would be nonetheless in the best interest of the state, so the Constitution gives voters the power to bypass the General Assembly in dealing with the legislature itself. The Illinois Supreme Court determines whether a given initiative meets the strict provisions of Section 3, and it has allowed only one such proposal to appear on the ballot. All this is especially relevant this year. 

While state constitutional provisions may seem stuffy and abstruse, changes can have serious impacts on government and politics. As a result, politics often play an important role in the amendment process. This year is no exception.

The November ballot could include as many as four proposals for voter consideration, each fraught with political significance, controversy and the potential to change the political landscape in Illinois dramatically — for good or ill. Depending on rulings by the Illinois Supreme Court, two of these proposals may reach the ballot via the very rare direct initiative route and two have been referred to voters by the General Assembly. 

The first initiative proposal would impose term limits on state legislators, preventing any person from serving in the General Assembly for more than eight years in his or her lifetime. This would be the most restrictive limit in the nation, by far. Today, the only limit on General Assembly service is how many times a person can get re-elected. Fifteen other states have state legislative term limits, all adopted in a wave of initiatives in the 1990s. This movement arose out of frustration with long-serving legislative incumbents who were thought to pander to interest groups for re-election, ignoring voters. While the logic of advocates’ arguments was not always sound, and the expected results of the reform have not been as advertised by its proponents, the visceral appeal of term limits to Americans continues to be powerful. Term limit proposals rarely lose at the ballot box.

But getting on the ballot is not a foregone conclusion for this initiative, regardless of the 500,000-plus signatures collected by proponents. Opponents have sued to block the initiative, arguing that the proposal doesn’t meet the narrow requirements of Article XIV, Section 3. Anticipating this challenge, the authors of the proposal included two provisions seemingly unrelated to term limits. First, the proposal would adjust the size of the House and Senate (structural), and second, it would make it harder for the General Assembly to override a gubernatorial veto (procedural). Whether the court will accept the entire package, bringing term limits along for the ride, is unknown at press time.

But the politics of this proposal suggest that it might have already had its intended effect. It was initiated by gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner in the summer of 2013, in anticipation of his 2014 campaign. By championing this initiative, Rauner was able to distinguish himself from his opponents, especially in the GOP primary. He painted himself as a newcomer to politics and an outsider, as compared to his opponents, each of whom had served many years in elected office. Rauner was able to associate himself closely with this popular issue, while highlighting the fact that his opponents were that most unpopular of creatures in American politics, “career politicians.” 

The other proposal that might land on the November ballot through the initiative process deals with a much more obscure and politically less sexy issue — redrawing legislative districts. Every 10 years, with each new census, all legislative districts must be redrawn to reflect changes in population. These new districts must be substantially equal in population to assure fair representation. Current redistricting practice in Illinois is much like that in most other states, with these new districts being codified through the normal legislative process, if an agreement can be reached there. Thus, lawmakers draw their own districts, in effect. Critics of this process argue that, by the careful manipulation of district boundaries, one political party or the incumbents of each political party can have the advantage. They point to the lack of competition and electoral turnover in legislative elections and the often bizarre shapes of legislative districts as evidence of such gerrymandering. 

The initiative proposal would change the redistricting process in Illinois in two main ways. First, it would establish official criteria on which to judge the quality of a proposed set of legislative maps. These criteria, such as trying to follow current local government boundaries and respecting communities of shared interest, are meant to improve representation and to make it harder for districts to be manipulated to favor individual politicians or parties. The second major change would establish a commission to draw legislative districts, with a convoluted appointment process designed to purge that body of political party influence. This proposed commission is based on a California reform that managed to change significantly the political dynamic in many legislative races there, although it has not changed the overall political makeup of the state’s legislature or congressional delegation. 

The politics of this redistricting proposal are unusual in Illinois in that they don’t break down clearly on party or regional lines. While House Speaker Michael Madigan has characterized it as a Republican effort to gain power, the bipartisan makeup of the proposal’s donors and supporters suggests a different dynamic. The split on this issue seems to be between “good government” reformers and the political establishment. While “goo-goos” typically have a difficult time in the General Assembly, they might have better luck working through the initiative process — if they can explain this rather arcane issue to voters. Reformers pushing similar proposals elsewhere have had difficulty doing this. But if advocates of this initiative can tap into the deep mistrust and dissatisfaction that Illinoisans currently feel toward state government, they have a very good chance of passing this measure. Of course, all this depends on the proposal being allowed onto the ballot by the state high court.

The General Assembly considered offering many controversial constitutional amendments to voters this year, everything from a tax on millionaires to abolishing three of the state’s constitutional officers, to banning same-sex marriage, among other ideas. But the two proposed amendments that they referred to voters in November are much less threatening to the status quo than the initiative proposals, although they both have clear political implications.

First, a “voter rights” proposal would prevent Illinoisans from being denied the right to register to vote or vote based on race, color, ethnicity, status as a member of a language minority, sex, sexual orientation or income. Why might we need to enshrine this rather benign acknowledgment in the Illinois Constitution? The politics behind the proposal tell the tale. Recently, in the name of fighting voter fraud, several states dominated by the GOP have adopted legislation requiring voters to have identification and otherwise making voting more difficult. Democrats argue that there is little evidence of voter fraud and that these restrictions unfairly target the poor and minorities. Given that the poor and minorities tend to vote Democratic, one can see both parties’ self-interest here. While the current proposal does not explicitly deal with these issues, Illinois Democrats appear to be using it to set the stage to head off any such efforts in the future.

The General Assembly has also referred to voters an effort to beef up crime victims’ rights. The state’s Constitution already lists certain rights for victims in criminal proceedings, but supporters worry these rights are not always upheld. The amendment would add some teeth to the victims’ rights provision by giving victims a formal process to assert their rights, if they feel that those rights are not being observed. Police and prosecutors are concerned that too much involvement by victims may sometimes impede justice, in some cases even making it harder to convict a perpetrator. But few people elicit as much sympathy as crime victims do. Politically, pushing a proposal that supports them is a no-brainer.

Illinois voters will have a rare chance in November to affect significant policy directly through their votes. Regardless of their politics, once issues are on the ballot, the voters have the final say. Chances are such a rich opportunity to do so will not be presented to voters again soon in Illinois.

Christopher Z. Mooney is the director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois.

Illinois Issues, June 2014