Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Poll: Illinois voters have appetite for reform

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois voters support a variety of reforms to state government, ranging from tweaks to campaign finance rules to term limits for elected officials

The Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale today presented results of a survey of 1,000 registered voters — part of the institute’s annual poll. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Those surveyed strongly backed legislative term limits, with 75 percent saying they support limits of five consecutive two year terms for state representatives and three consecutive four year terms for state senators.

David Yepsen, director of the institute, said widespread support for term limits is an indicator of the public’s frustration with their state government. He noted that the Tea Party has supported term limits, and that issue could become the focus of such a populist movement in Illinois. “If I am member of the legislature, I’ve got to be thinking, ‘How do I get the fuse out of this bomb?’” Yepsen said.

He said he thinks term limits cut in on the democratic process by blocking voters from choosing incumbents once their time has run out, regardless of what the popular vote might be. Yepsen said that forcing out lawmakers with institutional knowledge and experience would leave new lawmakers to turn to staff members and lobbyists for the bulk of information. “Staff people have too much power as it is, and lobbyists have too much power as it is.”

However, Yepsen said, “There’s all kinds of reasons why term limits are a bad idea, but voters are so fed up and so exasperated.”

Charles Leonard, visiting professor and polling director for the institute, agreed that term limits may not be the best public policy choice, but he said that if the redistricting process in the state is not changed, that idea could find more supporters. He said because districts are often drawn to protect incumbency, “a lot of people who might otherwise not support term limits may see it as a desperate move to throwing the bums out.”

Respondents also backed several campaign finance reform measures, including changes to the rules for judges:
  •  61.4 percent favored limiting the amount of money that party leaders can give to other candidates.
  • 71.4 percent supported limiting the amount of money that people can contribute for judicial races.
  • 53.6 percent backed giving judicial candidates public funding for their campaigns.
Leonard said after an attempt to unseat Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride last year resulted in the most expensive retention bid in the state’s history and the last 25 years nationally, voters seem ready for changes in how judges’ campaigns are run. He said such big-spending campaigns bring the issue to a place where most voters cannot ignore it: their television screens. “I think there’s a clamor for the need for judicial reform when judicial races start to bring that sort of sludge into their living rooms that the legislative [races] bring.” Those attempting to oust Kilbride came under fire for controversial television attack ads. “I’m sure that it will turn people off, never mind it being terrible public policy that people who practice before [the court] can give them large sums of money for their retention.”

Leonard said judicial reform might be low hanging fruit for legislators because they could institute a change that does not apply to their own branch of government.

Voters who responded to the poll also supported reworking the way Illinois redraws its legislative maps every 10 years after the census takes place. A plan to overhaul the redistricting process failed in the legislature last year, and the League of Women Voters was unable to capture the needed signatures to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot to change the process. But the institute’s poll found that voters generally agreed with one of the primary components of the league’s proposal. About 65 percent of respondents said they were in favor of having a commission independent from the legislature draw the map. That number increased from 53.5 percent in favor of such a plan in 2010. Yepsen and Leonard agreed that the efforts to change the system, as well as media coverage of the legislature drawing new maps last spring, has put the issue on the voters’ radar. “I think our mass media culture is capable of keeping about four items on the agenda at any time given our short attention span, And it’s up there right now,” Leonard said.

Yepsen said another effort to put a new method on the ballot as a constitutional amendment could be successful, but it would take a lot of money and professional organization. “A ballot initiative in a state this size takes a level of sophistication that a bunch of well-meaning volunteers just simply can’t do.” However, he said attempts to get an amendment on the ballot, such as ones from the league and others, may eventually spur legislative change. “I think just the threat of these constitutional amendments might give reform-minded people in the legislature and legislative leaders reason to do something on their own on these things.”

Leonard noted that only about 15 percent of voters think the state is headed in the right direction. “I think there’s some potential for this dissatisfaction to coalesce around an issue.” Out of all the reforms those polled supported, Leonard said redistricting reform may be the most pivotal to changing state government. “I think it’s our best hope at getting reformed politics. “

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