In Illinois politics, the fix is in, and we must change the status quo

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Illinois lawmakers in Springfield. | AP File Photo by Seth Perlman

Our politics aren’t broken, they’re fixed.

I can’t take credit for that truism. It came from Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter. She’s the former CEO of a food manufacturer near Milwaukee. He’s a Harvard Business School professor.

One day after Illinois’ governor candidates met in their first debate that enlightened no one, Gehl and Porter spoke at a Harvard Business School Club of Chicago luncheon about our horribly polarized politics and about solutions to fix what’s fixed.

They have found our politics are dragging the nation down by many economic measures. And while their focus is on national politics and government, the findings and lessons more than apply in Illinois, where many of us are frustrated with political business-as-usual.


Indeed, one of my very favorite political junkies just told me she’s decided to skip the race for governor. She can’t bring herself to cast a vote, this time, for the lesser of the evils.

It probably wouldn’t bother the candidates’ campaigns to hear that. They’re not really out to serve average voters.

In Illinois, and nationally, politicians have created a political-industrial complex designed to preserve their power, not voters’. We have a two-party system created to preserve and protect the two-party system and force third-party candidates to overcome enormous hurdles just to get on the ballot.

The major-party candidates first run to appeal to their parties’ extremes, those most motivated to vote in primaries. That process tends to produce candidates who are either beholden to these special interests or who, in fact, actually support their parties’ extreme views. As Gehl and Porter put it, “The duopoly competes intensely. The parties differentiate themselves by segmenting partisans and special interests, competing on ideology, not solutions.”

Compromise thus becomes a dirty word. Ideology is all. And none of this will change unless or until the silent, non-extreme majority gets active and demands that the systems controlled by the major parties are modified.

Politicians of one or the other major party draw legislative boundaries that are rigged to the advantage of their party’s incumbents. Major-party politicians have created complex rules and hurdles for candidates to get on the ballot. Outsiders who try to run are frequently subjected to challenges that drag on for months, and cost time and money. Legislation in Springfield isn’t debated or voted on unless the leaders of the majority party allow it.

So many of us have understood this for so long that we’ve given up.

But Gehl and Porter challenge us to do better, and some in Illinois are working to change the status quo. If enough everday citizens demand independent redistricting, it can happen. If enough average people demand open or non-partisan primaries, it can happen. If enough of us demand that candidates not be required to collect thousands upon thousands of voters’ signatures to run for office, it can happen.

To end the fix, Gehl and Porter say, we must work for the notions above, along with ranked-choice voting and instant runoffs if no candidate wins a majority. We must work to change the rules governing how our Legislature operates, and reduce the sway of special interests and big donors.

It’s happening already in other states. California has independent redistricting and a form of ranked-choice voting. Maine voters just approved ranked-choice voting. Unite America’s “Senate Fulcrum Strategy” is working to elect five independent U.S. senators to serve as a swing bloc to force change. Colorado allows candidates to use a real-time app so voters’ registration can be checked before they sign petitions. Using an app like that could end many candidate challenges.

How do we make this happen in Illinois? If enough residents tell their lawmakers they expect them to support these ideas, those lawmakers eventually would feel the pressure and, in turn, apply it to their party leaders.

It’s not enough to just vote anymore. It’s time to get active on behalf of better systems, more competition and new ideas for our elections and legislative bodies.

If you’re unhappy with the officeholders and the candidates, change the system. Start demanding different approaches from lawmakers.

As Gehl and Porter put it last week, “They’ll see the light when they feel the heat.”

All of us must work to raise the temperature in Illinois.

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

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