The Policy Shop: The (bleak) future of voter choice in Illinois

The Policy Shop: The (bleak) future of voter choice in Illinois

This edition of The Policy Shop is by writer Patrick Andriesen 

The Illinois Supreme Court is being asked to quickly decide whether to allow a mid-election attempt by state leaders to prevent challengers from getting on the Nov. 5 ballot.

The issue will decide whether state lawmakers and Gov. J.B. Pritzker can win by changing the rules in the middle of the game. That’s pretty close to the classic definition of cheating.

In this contest it’s voters who will lose.

But let’s rewind the story: Illinois for decades has allowed major political parties to fill open general election spots by appointing someone to run if there was no candidate in the party’s primary election, a process known as slating. The candidate must still fulfill obligations to collect registered voters’ signatures on nominating petitions.

So the process was underway in 78 legislative districts when state lawmakers and Pritzker in May rushed through legislation to outlaw slating.

“The General Assembly can change the rules for elections, but they can’t do it in the middle of the game to keep challengers off the ballot,” said Jeffrey Schwab, senior counsel at the Liberty Justice Center.

The center worked with Illinois Policy to bring a lawsuit. “We are proud to stand up for these candidates and against yet another scheme to suppress competition in Illinois elections,” Schwab said.

Lead plaintiff and prospective candidate Leslie Collazo said the maneuver by Pritzker and state leaders during the middle of the election cycle diminished Illinoisans’ choice of representatives.

“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,” Collazo 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.”

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

Choice matters in elections. Illinois Policy Institute analysis has shown voter participation was on average 7 percentage points lower in Illinois House districts with only one candidate on the ballot. Under Illinois’ previous legislative map, on average roughly half of all Illinois House races were uncontested.

Collazo was joined in the suit by 13 other candidates. They, and voters, won on June 5. A Sangamon County circuit judge ruled Pritzker and state lawmakers’ attempt to help their incumbent buddies and stop competition in the middle of an election was unconstitutional.

The judge issued a permanent injunction against the provision of Senate Bill 2412 which blocked the ability of political parties to slate candidates in the upcoming November election. While the injunction preserves the 14 plaintiff candidates’ right to appear on the Nov. 5 general election ballot, the law will still end the process of slating in future election cycles.

The state is appealing the decision and bypassed the appellate court by going straight to the Illinois Supreme Court. On June 14 the justices agreed to place the appeal on the court’s accelerated docket.

Pritzker has another bill on his desk, this one would allow nursing home residents to permanently vote by mail. The bill has some worried about ballot harvesting, as enfeebled older adults in nursing homes are guided to vote or have their ballots cast for them by unscrupulous election workers. It would make permanent one of the many pandemic-era changes that made it much easier to vote.

That’s Illinois state law for you: everybody gets to vote, but you get no choices.

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