The games Illinois insiders play to keep you, the voter, outside

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Political insiders use an array of tricks and games to dilute the ability of ordinary voters to challenge the status quo, writes Madeleine Doubek. | Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

If you care about democracy, don’t forget how it “works” closest to home. In Illinois, those in power use and abuse the electoral process to cling to that power.

Let’s count some of the ways:

1. House Speaker Michael Madigan is being accused in court by Jason Gonzalez, who ran against Madigan in the March 2016 Democratic primary, of recruiting two other candidates with Hispanic names to also make the run. Madigan’s intent, Gonzalez charges, was to load up the ballot with Hispanic names so as to dilute the anti-incumbent vote and assure his reelection.


To be clear, Gonzalez and the two others candidates with Hispanic names got only 34.9 percent of the vote, combined. But complaints about sham candidates surface regularly in elections.

2. Many state lawmakers called it quits after the two-year state budget stalemate, with only a few finishing their terms. A classic election trick is the early resignation. If an officeholder resigns early enough, then party officials can choose a replacement who runs for election with the benefits of incumbency. To the party players, not the voters, goes the power.

Just last week, GOP Secretary of State candidate Jason Helland predicted that Democratic incumbent Jesse White, who is 84 years old, won’t finish his term, but will win in November and retire before 2023 so party officials can pick his successor. White later vowed, however, that he would finish his new term.

3. Earlier this month, WBEZ reported that Michael Pelko, whom Democrats recruited last year to challenge another candidate’s petition signatures, had been charged with murder five weeks later. Challenging a candidate’s petitions for office, sometimes on the most minor of technicalities, is one of the most frequent Illinois election tricks. A candidate once was tossed from the ballot because a loose paper clip meant the candidate’s papers were not “neatly  fastened,” as required by election law.

4. In local suburban elections, it’s typically the mayor, the city clerk and another incumbent who make up the board that votes on whether challenged candidates get on a ballot. Anyone think local incumbents might tend to favor other entrenched incumbents? A regional board might be a better solution.

5. There’s also the trick of packing the ballot with advisory questions.

Case in point: Former Gov. Pat Quinn on Aug. 6 submitted 86,481 signatures — almost 34,000 more than required — to get a binding question on the Nov. 6 ballot asking Chicago voters if they want the mayor limited to two terms. But within a week, two challenges to Quinn’s effort had been filed, with one suggesting that there’s no room for his question on the ballot because aldermen already loaded it up with the maximum of three advisory questions.

It’s likely this battle will end up in court, decided by a judge who, of course, owes his election to one of the political parties in control.

6. Incumbents also have written into the law high barriers for access to the ballot if you’re an outsider. GOP State Sen. Sam McCann opted to run for governor as a third “Conservative Party” candidate. That meant he had to file 25,000 signatures from valid Illinois voters to qualify. To be safe, he filed about 65,000 signatures. The Democratic and Republican candidates were required to file only 5,000 signatures.

7. The ultimate power play, of course, is gerrymandering, in which legislative district boundaries are drawn to all but dictate which party will win.

Oh, the power games our politicians play. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, it’s not this way elsewhere.

In California, challenges to candidacies are rare, said James Schwab, California deputy secretary of state for policy and planning. An election official verifies a candidate’s residency and the voter signatures submitted. Once that’s done, you’re good to go. “Everyone should be able to have access to the ballot after meeting a few simple requirements,” Schwab said.

In Illinois, a plan has been drafted to lower the number of signatures required for countywide candidates in Cook County, and allow the use of an app to provide a real-time check on whether a signer is a valid voter, which would eliminate a lot of candidate challenges. The proposal also would move election dates so that, ideally, challenges to candidacies are resolved before early voting begins.

The legislation might not be perfect, but it’s a start at ending the Illinois Way. It’s a start at ending the Illinois mantra former congressman, judge and presidential adviser Abner Mikva once was famously subjected to: “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”

Madeleine Doubek is the Better Government Association’s vice president of policy.

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