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How Chicago’s powerful control the ballot, map — and weather — to win elections

Fourteen candidates are running for mayor — but it could have been as many as 21, writes Madeleine Doubek. | Screenshot

As you’re contemplating one of the wildest Chicago elections in memory, step back and give some thought to how our elections are structured and how they should be better.

Yep, there are 14 candidates for mayor in a rare race without an incumbent. That’s both an excellent thing and a big challenge as voters try to sort through where they all stand and who can best manage one of the greatest cities in the world.

OPINION

It’s important Chicago voters, and Illinoisans everywhere, also think about what happens before Election Day.

To start, let’s remember that 21 people tried to make it to the ballot and fully one-third of them didn’t.

And why in the world are we holding elections in February in a state with our weather? If you don’t feel sorry for all the campaign people who had to be out in that epic wind Sunday, well, you’re just cruel.

We have February elections because the powerful want to keep power.

It’s all about control. The major party leaders know winter elections will tamp down participation, making it easier for them to turn out only those voters they want to participate. That way, they have a better chance of controlling the outcomes.

Think about other elections. Outside of the marquee, citywide or statewide races, leaders from one or the other party first draw the districts that determine who votes where. They draw them to protect their control. If you’re a regular voter, party leaders know whether you tend to vote for Democrats or Republicans and use that to draw districts that tend to guarantee their favored candidates win. They gerrymander districts, protect incumbents and drive down competition.

Consider this: In 2018, 49 percent of the races for state representative and state senator in Illinois had only one candidate running. In 2016, it was even worse. 58 percent of the Illinois General Assembly races were uncontested.

That is why we all need to push to end gerrymandering. We need to ask our state representatives and senators to support the Fair Maps Amendment. SJRCA 4 in the Illinois Senate is sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Julie Morrison and HJRCA 15 is sponsored by state Rep. Ryan Spain in the Illinois House. If we pressure politicians and legislative leaders to allow a vote and it passes, the amendment would be placed on the 2020 statewide ballot before the next census and before new maps are drawn in 2021.

If voters approve, the amendment would allow for the creation of a 16-member citizen commission to draw maps. The commission’s work would be done publicly and without regard for political considerations. The commission would have to conduct 20 hearings before any map is proposed and another 10 after a map is proposed, but before it’s voted on.

When politicians draw maps, that’s where they start to rig elections to keep control. They schedule elections when they can best control who participates. They write the rules for what’s required to get on the ballot to keep further control.

Those requirements in Illinois are much more elaborate in than many other states. There are rules about how many voter signatures are required, how voters sign and how papers must be bound together.

It’s all done so political powers can preserve that power, suppress candidacies and votes. It should be done with the aim of making it easy for more candidates to run and for more voters to participate.

Does it make sense to you that it takes 5,000 voter signatures to run for statewide office from a major political party in Illinois, but 12,500 to run for Chicago mayor and more than 20,000 to run for Cook County Board president?

Candidates know they ought to collect at least three times those numbers or their petitions will be challenged and scores of them will be tossed. That is how Chicago went from 21 mayoral candidates to 14.

The Improving Ballot Access for All legislation, SB 2083 and HB 3114 sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Heather Steans and Democratic state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, attempts to bring some sanity and uniformity to the process.

If this legislation became law, candidates never would have to submit more than 5,000 signatures, at minimum. The state elections board would be directed to try a system that allows for electronic voter signatures like they do in Denver. There, an eSign application allows those gathering signatures to make sure someone is registered at their current address before they sign. Its adoption has dramatically cut down on candidate challenges. The same could be done here.

As you contemplate casting your vote, consider asking your state lawmakers to support these four bills that would restore fairness and bring more competition and common sense to our elections.

Madeleine Doubek is executive director of CHANGE Illinois, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for political and government reforms.

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