The Policy Shop: Springfield vs. democracy

The Policy Shop: Springfield vs. democracy

Faster than the 150th Kentucky Derby, faster than the upcoming Indianapolis 500, it’s the Springfield 78. This fast one was passed and signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in record time, and voters in 78 Illinois General Assembly districts likely found themselves without any races, and thus choices, for the November election.

State lawmakers just made their Springfield safe spaces a little safer by eliminating a major method for challengers to get on the general election ballot. Senate Bill 2412 eliminated a process called “slating,” which allows candidates to get access to the ballot through party leaders. Candidates using the slating process were still required to go through the regular requirements to get on the ballot, but if they were in a legislative district with no primary opponent, slating made it possible to get on the ballot for the general election without participating in the primary.

That’s what Leslie Callazo was doing when Pritzker signed the bill May 3. She is a mom, a real estate agent and active in her community. She intended to challenge incumbent state Rep. LaShawn Ford, D-Chicago, who has been in office since 2007.

“We had started the petitioning process, canvassing the neighborhood, collecting signatures. I had already started building out websites, investing in some technology that we could use to just get the word out,” Callazo said. “We were about halfway in as far as the number of petitions that we needed.”

“Then with this bill, the rug got pulled out from under me. I was shocked. But then again, I feel like I shouldn’t be shocked, considering how things are going in our government currently.”

Illinois law is already notoriously difficult to navigate for political candidates, which is no accident because it keeps Joe and Jane Average from unseating the entrenched incumbents, most of whom at present are the super-majority Democrats. Lawmaking is just so much easier when newbies aren’t pestering you with wild-haired ideas and disrupting the head-nodding.

But making this change in the middle of a campaign was even unsettling for some Democrats. State Rep. Lindsey LaPointe, D-Chicago, was one of the four who voted against the bill.

“That’s problematic for me because as an elected official in Illinois, I’m constantly trying to rebuild trust in Illinois government and politics that many of the people I represent… don’t have,” she said to Capitol News Illinois.

Now there will be even fewer people with trust in Illinois government. There also will be no competition in 66 Illinois House districts and 12 Illinois Senate districts when voters cast their ballots Nov. 5.

Callazo said state lawmakers show up at election time, then are never heard from again. She said lawmakers just went to great lengths to eliminate challengers who could be real voices for people.

“And I think the other side is nervous because the people have spoken and they’re ready for change,” she said. “To see them grappling with these types of things at the last minute to avoid losing their position is really unfair.”

Illinois Policy Institute analysis has shown higher electoral participation is linked with a greater number of candidates on the ballot. Why vote in an election where there is no choice?

Voter participation was on average seven percentage points lower in Illinois legislative House districts that had only one candidate on the ballot. Under Illinois’ last legislative map, on average roughly half of all Illinois House races were uncontested.

Illinois already favors incumbents through a corrupt gerrymandering process, which allows politicians to give themselves an unfair political advantage by drawing political maps that create favorable electoral districts. Democrats are abusing this power now, and Republicans have done so in the past when they had majorities in Springfield.

Reforms that distance the legislature or other politicians from the redistricting process could fix gerrymandering in Illinois. Michigan’s independent redistricting commission produced one of the most competitive maps in the country by randomly selecting commissioners from a pool of members of the major parties as well as independents, minimizing the incentive to gerrymander for partisan advantage.

Illinois nearly had an independent commission in charge of drawing Illinois district lines. A citizen initiative gained over 560,000 signatures – more than enough to be placed on the ballot in 2016. That ballot question was rejected by the Illinois Supreme Court as unconstitutional after a lawsuit was filed by a Com-Ed lobbyist with ties to former House Speaker Mike Madigan. The court ruled on a single narrow issue regarding the amendment, leaving open the potential for a similar proposal.

But who will again take on the monumental task of fixing gerrymandering in Illinois when there’s little trust a corrupt government won’t again find a way to deny Illinoisans’ will and protect incumbents from political competition? State lawmakers could pass an amendment changing the redistricting process, but really: what’s the likelihood when they and the governor just pulled this sleight-of-hand that undermines the prospect of fair elections?

There may yet be hope for Callazo and voters in those 78 districts.

The Illinois State Board of Elections said they have already accepted some slating filings and will continue to accept them until the June 3 deadline. There may be a lawsuit by candidates who had planned to get on the ballot through slating.

“This is bigger than just, ‘Oh, I put all this time, energy, funds, toward this.’ The fact they can try to pull this in the middle of the process is more devastating,” Callazo said. “The greater cost is to allow this to happen. To not give people an option to put someone in office who will be a voice for them. I think people deserve better than that.”

People deserve better. Democracy deserves better.

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