SPRINGFIELD – Let the voters decide. Whether it’s figuring out if the state should tax millionaires or who should pay for birth control, Illinois voters could see more November ballot questions than they have in decades.
As many as seven ballot measures could be up for consideration, including four proposed to alter Illinois’ Constitution and three poll-style questions. Brought by Democrats and Republicans, they’re aimed at boosting voter turnout, which was abysmal during the primary, in a general election that features one of the nation’s most competitive and expensive governor’s races.
But political experts and voters groups warn of risks too, such as voter fatigue and detracting from other issues.
Still, voters groups are gearing up. League of Women Voters of Illinois executive director Mary Schaafsma said so many possibilities raise questions about political motives and could dilute efforts to raise awareness, but it’s a way to motivate voters.
“It’s a way for voters to feel like they have a little bit of empowerment,” she said. “Voters are capricious, and they can change their mind.”
None of the ballot measures – term limits, political redistricting, voters’ rights, crime victims’ rights and minimum wage – are sure things. Some are still emerging as legislators prepare to adjourn this week. Election officials are verifying signatures for petition-driven efforts on political boundaries and term limits while a lawsuit could threaten both plans. Election officials certify ballots in August.
The sheer number of potential ballot measures could be unprecedented. State Board of Election records, which date back to 1970, show there have not been more than three ballot measures in one election year – including constitutional amendments and nonbinding questions.
Nationally, Illinois isn’t a heavy hitter on ballot questions that change laws, especially when compared with California and Colorado. But Illinois could stand out for potentially asking so many nonbinding advisory questions, which isn’t as common, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The issue hit a frenzied pitch in Illinois Thursday when the Senate advanced one nonbinding question that asks voters if prescription drug plans should cover birth control, an Illinois law on the books since 2003. Opposition from Republican Sen. Matt Murphy was so impassioned that he was admonished by leadership to avoid personal attacks.
“This is a gimmick. It’s a stunt. It’s a game and everybody down here knows it,” he said during debate. “You just want to gin people up over issues that really don’t exist. I think it’s shameful. I think it speaks to just how scared you are that people are finally on to you.”
The measure’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Iris Martinez, shot back, saying women’s issues are under attack, particularly in the wake of the Affordable Care Act. She said the question would solidify support even if it won’t affect policy. Two other such poll-style questions – if Illinois should raise its minimum wage or add a surcharge to yearly salaries over $1 million – could also make it to the ballot. Democrats’ attempts to do both have faltered in the Legislature.
However, Democrats aren’t the only ones pushing ballot initiatives.
A group backed by Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner seeks to limit statewide officers to two terms, which has prompted Gov. Pat Quinn to defend his position. The Chicago Democrat, who won in 2010 by a slim margin, championed term limits for years.
“Politicians are interested in doing things that will trigger a better voter turnout by their base voters,” said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.
So far, voters haven’t shown much enthusiasm.
Only about 18 percent of eligible voters statewide turned out to the polls during the March primary, the lowest statewide turnout for a primary election since 1998, as far back as online records go.
Some advocacy groups worry about voter fatigue. The questions typically don’t appear until the ballot’s end, so a rushed voter might be tempted to skip or have an evaporating attention span.
Others said they’d be ready to educate voters.
The Urban League of Chicago, which focuses on African Americans, said several of the issues were important, including voters’ rights. The plan, that’s passed both the House and Senate, seeks to prevent people from being denied the right to register or vote based on race, among other things. It comes as several other states have recently made it harder to vote.
“Voting rights,” said Roderick Hawkins, a league vice president “that’s the core of what we do.”