Winter weather cools idea of Illinois as bellwether

What causes me concern is any election process that doesn’t prioritize voter participation and fairness above all else or one that fails to acknowledge the importance of the other offices that must be filled.

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A snowy Election Day in Wilmette in 2010, when Illinois flirted with a February primary. File Photo.

A snowy Election Day in Wilmette in 2010, when Illinois flirted with a February primary. File Photo.

Al Podgorski/Sun-Times

Let’s make this simple.

Would you rather come out in January and February to vote or wait until March, April or May?

Most people would rather wait until after the spring thaw, I’m pretty sure. They’d also rather see a shorter time gap between the primary and November general election, thereby shortening the overall campaign season.

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Opinion

That’s why I say “no thanks” to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s suggestion to move Illinois up to first on the primary election calendar in 2024 ahead of Iowa, New Hampshire and all the rest.

Pritzker made the suggestion Monday evening via Twitter before the full extent of the Iowa caucus debacle renewed questions about whether our neighbor to the west deserves its pre-eminent spot in the presidential nominating process.

Pritzker was poking at Iowa’s relative lack of diversity and offering Illinois as the solution, using an NPR story as evidence.

“If you’re looking for a state whose people represent the diversity of America, look no further than Illinois. It’s time for the most representative state in the country to be the first in the nation,” Pritzker tweeted.

By Tuesday morning, perhaps sensing an opening in the wake of the Iowa Democratic Party’s vote-counting collapse, Pritzker followed up with a statement indicating he meant to be taken seriously.

“I look forward to working with other elected officials and the party to change the calendar so that Illinois’ primary comes first in the nominating process in the 2024 presidential election,” Pritzker said.

J.B. Pritzker and his running mate, State Rep. Juliana Stratton, celebrate their primary win in 2018.

Then gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker and his running mate, State Rep. Juliana Stratton, celebrate their win in the Democratic primary in 2018. File Photo.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

It occurs to me the Republican Party might have its own thoughts about setting the Illinois primary date, which brings to mind at least one reason why our state might not be quite the political bellwether Pritzker and NPR say it is. The notion that Democrats alone will decide the matter says plenty about a once middle-of-the-road state that now leans strongly Democratic.

Those leanings don’t bother me.

What causes me concern is any election process that doesn’t prioritize voter participation and fairness above all else or one that fails to acknowledge the importance of the other offices that must be filled, even in a presidential election year.

This year in Cook County we’re looking at contested races for Congress, the state Supreme Court, state’s attorney, Circuit Court clerk and more.

You start tinkering with the date of the primary for purposes of presidential politics, and you affect all those races as well with sometimes unforeseeable consequences.

We got a taste of that in 2008 and 2010 after the Legislature moved up the primary to the first week in February to help boost Barack Obama’s chances for the Democratic nomination.

It worked fine for Obama, but the overall result was an election coming right on the heels of the holidays with candidates who had not been properly vetted.

Then we crossed our fingers and hoped to avoid a blizzard.

Sure, voting in person isn’t as important as it once was, given the movement towards voting by mail and other forms of early voting.

But I think we’re still a ways off in Illinois from entrusting our elections entirely to the vagaries of the U.S. Postal Service or to some new system of online voting.

That leaves voters showing up at a polling place to cast a ballot, the prospects for which are dicier the earlier we are on the calendar.

The counter-argument from Pritzker seems to be that it would be good for the country to have a state such as Illinois getting first shot at picking the president, and it would be good for the state to have all the attention and exposure that comes with having the presidential candidates roaming the state for a year.

Setting aside the whole problem of whether New Hampshire or Iowa would even let somebody else go first, I’m not so sure the rest of the country is going to see our special brand of corrupt, transactional politics as the ideal blueprint.

Yes, it’s nice to have a real impact on picking the nominee, which has been hit or miss in Illinois in the past with our normal March primary slot. But a January primary would offer no guarantees.

Others may suggest detaching the presidential primary from the rest of the offices to be contested, leaving us with two primaries.

The problem with that idea is elections are expensive to conduct. A statewide election can cost taxpayers $30 million to $40 million. That’s not an added cost that local governments, which administer elections in Illinois, are ready to finance.

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