By Jamey Dunn
Gov. Pat Quinn took action today to create an open primary system in Illinois.
Quinn used his amendatory veto power to alter a House Bill 4842, which would require the State Board of Elections to create voter guides for primaries. He did nothing to change the original thrust of the legislation, but tacked on a provision that would end the requirement that Illinois voters declare a party to participate in primary elections.
The original bill was a response to Scott Lee Cohen’s surprise win of the Democratic Party’s lieutenant governor nomination. He stepped down amid a growing media storm after allegations surfaced of drug use and violence in his past. He is now making a bid for governor as an independent. After that embarrassment, lawmakers felt more should be done to inform voters about primary candidates in what is often a wide field of choices.
But Quinn took the subject matter of the bill as an opportunity to go after an aspect of Illinois’ primary system that has been a point of controversy stemming back from the days of machine-style politics.
Under Quinn's changes, voters would still only be able to vote for one party, but they would make the choice privately inside the voters’ booth.
Proponents say this small difference protects voters who may fear political retaliation that could manifest through being fired from a state job or being shot down if applying for one. It may be a small alteration to the primary process. However, in as state with a history of ward bosses bringing out the vote and infamous patronage hiring practices, what the change could symbolize is important to many. Quinn’s Illinois Reform Commission recommended open primaries last year. From the commission's report:
“A common method of enforcing political patronage is by checking an employee’s voting record, particularly in primaries. The Commission recommends that primaries should be open and votes should be secret in order to combat patronage and prevent intimidation of public employees by party leaders.”
Quinn cited combating political revenge, protecting privacy and increasing voter turnout, which was at record lows for last February’s primary, as his reasons for the change.
“Unfortunately in our state there are those in politics who’ve decided who gets employed or who gets fired based on how they vote in a primary. A lot of folks, good folks who are registered voters, don’t come out to vote in a primary because they are afraid to disclosure their party affiliation because they are afraid that that may have economic consequences or social consequences for them on their job or in their neighborhood,” he said at a Chicago press conference.
However, parties have arguments for wanting to know who is on their team in the primary. One way to vet the party loyalty of newcomer candidates is to check their voting records. With voter demographics and party support shifting in many legislative districts, parties may want to make sure the “new guy or gal” they are backing is not just using the party mantle to win a seat. There is also concern that a party would make an organized effort to get the candidate elected in the opposition’s primary that they consider easiest to defeat. Of course, it is arguable whether either of these scenarios actually happen on any wide scale.
There is also a potential public interest in being able to access the voting history of players in Illinois government, such as lobbyists, contractors and campaign contributors.
In making a change that is often viewed as a reform, Quinn is calling out the legislature, which would have to approve the veto but can wait until after November to take it up, possibly creating a campaign issue in the gubernatorial election.
“Part of my job between now and then is to let the people know who’s for an open primary, and protecting the privacy of the voter, and who’s not. There are some politicians — they’ve been there a long time — they vote no. They want to know how you vote. They want to know what political party. They think government should but in on your conscientious decision on who you vote for and how you vote,” he said.
Some legislators may resent the move that could be viewed as a decree or an overstep of the governor's authority, especially because the Senate shot down an open primaries bill just last year. Quinn himself said today that a “crowbar” was necessary to “open up the process.” Quinn's Republican challenger, Sen. Bill Brady voted "no" on the bill, which is something the governor may be trying to highlight.
It is possible the legislature will challenge the veto based on the idea that it has little to do with the original intent of the bill. “[Senate President John Cullerton] is generally supportive of measures designed to increase voter participation. However, the General Assembly will conduct a compliance analysis to determine if the governor's actions today alter the fundamental purpose of the original bill. This analysis and any formal legislative action will begin in the House,” Cullerton spokesperson Rikeesha Phelon said in a written statement.