Want to fix Illinois’ voter suppression? Then give voters choices.

Want to fix Illinois’ voter suppression? Then give voters choices.

Voter suppression is an art in Illinois, where decades of rules to give incumbents or favored-party candidates an easy ride to reelection deny voters choices in about half of Illinois House races. Illinois Policy is trying to change that by increasing the choices that bring out voters.

Voter suppression is rampant in Illinois, and it targets the poor and minorities – especially in Chicago.

But research shows it isn’t some right-wing effort to stop automatic voter registration, vote-by-mail or ask for photo IDs at the polls. It comes from a system carefully crafted over decades to stop competition by making voter participation meaningless.

Lack of choice is Illinois’ most powerful voter suppression machine.

Illinois politicians built the machine to discourage competition and protect incumbents. Gerrymandered legislative maps that create uncompetitive districts and election rules that test clerical skills are all part of how Illinois politicians keep Jane Q. Public from running for office.

The cost is big: 1.7 million missing votes since 2012.

Plus, corruption breeds where there is no competition for public office. Corruption costs Illinois an estimated $556 million a year.

And maybe most insidious, lack of choice hurts the interests of the communities that most need public services.  Low-income urban areas where most of the population are minorities are least likely to see ballot choices, which leaves their safe-seat representatives more interested in the money and priorities of special interests than in the needs and desires of their constituents.

So, Illinois Policy, the institute’s advocacy partner, decided to do something about the suppression created when voters have no choices to make, thus no reason to go to the polls. It encouraged competition in Statehouse races, recruiting candidates and guiding them through the process of filing to run. The results are shaping up as potentially the most competitive Illinois election cycle in at least 24 years.

Instead of the average 64 races out of 118, this year is likely to see 82 contested Statehouse races. Some of the candidates are running in districts where  – for over two decades – voters have gone without a general election choice.

The stories of these candidates are diverse and heroic. They are well-intentioned, regular folks who care about their communities and the direction in which Illinois is headed. They are immigrants who saw suppression of much more than their votes, a police chief worried about education, an emergency room nurse who saw state child protection efforts fail and a veteran dedicated to continuing his service.

One understands crime better than most: Edward Kornegay directs a prison ministry, and his son survived being shot in the face during a carjacking at the grocery store. He prepares incarcerated people for life after confinement by helping them understand freedom of choice and how much choice matters.

“They think freedom means having the right to go to work or rob a store,” Kornegay said. “So, I believe that even my running for office is about freedom. I am free to do nothing, or try to invoke change with my own hands. It’s a free choice, and only by being free can you affect change in your life and the lives of your family.”

“That’s it. This is what it means to be free.”

The candidates, like Illinois Policy, decided Illinois’ problems can be fixed if they get involved. They are providing the choices that foster change.

This article was originally published on The Center Square.

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