Self-described "Part-Time Pundit" and erstwhile blogger John Bambenek is heading up an effort to clean up the festering sinkhole that is Illinois politics. The "Rally for Reform" is touting an initiative, dubbed the Putback Amendment, to amend Article IV of the Illinois Constitution, which defines and delimits the state's General Assembly. The Rally needs half a million signatures to get the proposed changes on the statewide ballot in November 2010. The complete text is here: I'm looking at their press release, which singles out four specific reforms:

Term Limits — Legislative terms would be limited to two years per term, and legislators would serve a maximum of four terms (eight years). The eight year maximum could be consecutive or broken up, but eight years would be the limit.

I tend to favor term limits, generally, though I must take note of the fact that the good official is forced out on the same time frame as the weasel, which could be considered a drawback. As Peoria Pundit Billy Dennis says: "If I have a good legislator, I want to be able to re-elect him or her." Can this even be determined in eight years? I don't know. I think the twelve-year rule adopted in Oklahoma is a smidgen, if not 50 percent, better.

Seven-Day Public Viewing of All Legislation — This would assure lawmakers would actually read what they're voting on, because the public would have ample opportunity to read the bills as well. It would end the practice of "shell bills" that often contain taxes and spending the public doesn't know about until it is too late.

We could definitely use something like that in Soonerland, home of the woollybooger. In fact, a provision like this would be useful just about everywhere, given some politicians' resistance to the very idea of reading bills.

End Gerrymandering — After the census, all data would be made public to ensure a scoring system based on objective criteria. Incumbency is explicitly disallowed, ensuring that people pick their politicians instead of politicians picking their voters. Anyone can sue based on gerrymandering instead of just the Attorney General.

What are these "objective criteria"? From the text of the proposed amendment: "Legislative Districts shall be compact, be contiguous, be substantially equal in population, reflect minority voting strengths, promote competitive elections, and consider political boundaries. The General Assembly shall establish by law a method to determine a score for any map for Legislative districts using only this criteria." While these are generally reasonable criteria, inevitably to some extent they're going to contradict one another: "compact" and "substantially equal in population," in particular, can be expected to collide. The amendment proposes to create a commission to "score" any proposed redistricting map, eliminating those which may violate state or Federal law, and only the top three scorers will be submitted to the Senate for consideration; this approach is, I think, ultimately more workable than assigning a specific priority level to each of the criteria, though the potential for mischief remains on the high side.

Equal Ballot Access — This would end the discriminatory practice that allows some established political parties an advantage in getting on the ballot. It would remove unfair impediments to Independents and third-parties who want to run for office. Disqualification of signatures could only be based on fraud, deception, or unintelligibility — as opposed to technicalities often used by established parties to get Independent candidates thrown off the ballot.

We know from ballot access in Oklahoma: anyone not carrying the mark of the D or the R is automatically at a major disadvantage here. The Illinois rules are particularly arcane, due to a process called "slating," which enables a party committee to name a candidate for an office in the general election if no one from that party ran in the primary, an effort to cut down the number of uncontested races in the state. In 2009, a bill was introduced that would require slated candidates outside "established" parties — there are three statewide, Democrats, Republicans and Greens — to go and collect signatures anyway. Opponents dubbed it the "Protect Incumbents Act," and Governor Pat Quinn actually vetoed it, but the Assembly voted to override the veto. I have some qualms about slating, but I really hate the idea of uncontested elections.

What is really amazing to me, though, is that the Rally doesn't mention in its press release the biggest change of all: the elimination of the House of Representatives. Currently Illinois has 59 legislative districts, each of which elects two Representatives and a Senator; this initiative would provide that each district elect three Senators. This is not being done out of any hostility toward the House, though: it's being done because Illinois has an extremely limited initiative process, and changing the structure of the Assembly is one of the few areas where citizens can even bring ballot initiatives. So this is perhaps a tad sneaky, but also freaking ingenious, especially since if enough signatures are presented, the Assembly has nothing to say about it: the measure goes on the ballot, and that's that.

And that name: why "Putback"? It's intended to counter the 1980 Cutback Amendment, which replaced the old system of three Representatives (Senators were not affected) per district. Under that system, cumulative voting was in place: you had three votes for a seat, which you could give to a single candidate, or split between two or three. The Putback Amendment would restore this provision. Proponents contend that "this would encourage and strengthen minority representation even in districts that don't have 50%+ minority populations," which seems at least somewhat plausible.

Still, this is a major change by any definition, and it might be a hard sell to Illinois voters, though the current system seems to have few defenders other than previous and current occupants of actual Assembly seats. The deadline for submission of petitions is May 2, 2010, though the proponents would like to have the canvassing done by the first of April.

The Vent

  24 October 2009

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