For Rauner and Emanuel, politics trumps policy on electoral reform

Photo by Grace Donnelly

Gov. Bruce Rauner spoke to the Chicago City Council, presided over by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, in May 2015.

Some took Senate President John Cullerton’s suggestion that state leaders “set aside politics and focus on policy” as a call for compromise between Springfield Democrats and Republicans.  Maybe it was, but it can certainly be read another way.

That’s because just about every item on Gov. Bruce Rauner’s “turnaround agenda” has a very debatable policy impact and a very clear political impact.

And beyond the budget impasse, even electoral reform – in a year when voter discontent (some wildly misguided) was sharply registered in the Democratic primary and the general election – is being opposed not on policy considerations, but strictly out of political concerns.

Just to make things interesting, that’s equally true for Chicago’s Democratic mayor as for Illinois’ Republican governor.

First, Rauner’s economic agenda – cutting worker’s compensation benefits and crippling unions – is based purely on right-wing ideology.  Many argue, quite plausibly in my view, that it’s a path not to broad-based prosperity but to even higher corporate profit levels.

What’s undeniable is that these “reforms” would squash two of the Democrats’ major sources of funding: unions and trial lawyers.

Throw in term limits (a faux-populist panacea that polls well) and redistricting reform (an important issue turned into a Republican power-grab, as shown by reformers’ lack of regard for minority rights) and what you get is a series of measures obviously aimed at hurting Democrats and helping Republicans.

Meanwhile, two serious electoral reforms are being held hostage–one by Rauner, one by Mayor Rahm Emanuel – with both politicians apparently motivated to protect their own incumbency.

The legislature is now considering whether to override Rauner’s veto of an automatic voter registration bill that passed in May.  The measure would register anyone eligible, who didn’t choose to opt out, whenever they interacted with driver services or other state agencies.  Its biggest advantage could be automatically updating registrations when voters move.

Rauner said he vetoed the bill after negotiations over changes failed, but no real negotiations took place, said Brian Gladstein, executive director of Common Cause, a prime mover behind the legislation.  The governor’s office produced a list of changes just two days before the veto deadline – too late to iron out differences.

The deal-breaker, Gladstein said, was Rauner’s proposal to delay automatic voter registration until 2019 – after his reelection bid.  “That’s bringing politics into policy,” Gladstein said.

The original bill passed with broad bipartisan support, by margins that would make a veto override easy. But now, GOP legislators have introduced their own “watered-down” automatic voter registration bill, designed to give political cover to Republican legislators to avoid voting for a veto override, according to the Just Democracy Illinois coalition. Gladstein expects some Republicans to stick with their original vote to avoid looking like they’re “flip-flopping.”

(On November 16, the Senate voted to override Rauner’s veto, with one Republican joining the majority.  The bill now moves to the House.)

It’s an important inflection point, especially at a moment when white nationalists are assuming positions of power in a Republican administration in Washington D.C.  If Illinois Republicans will block expanding the electorate out of strictly partisan concerns, how long until they imitate Republicans in other states and push voter suppression, particularly of pro-Democratic minority communities?

That would an unfortunate shift.  Republicans here have generally not stooped to racial politics the way their colleagues elsewhere have.  In recent years, for example, a series of immigration reforms, including drivers’ licenses and in-state tuition at public colleges for undocumented immigrants, have passed with significant Republican support.

But if winning a power struggle becomes your only goal, why not look to Wisconsin, where Republicans under Gov. Scott Walker – cited by Rauner as a model – have implemented a voter ID requirement? An estimated 300,000 Wisconsin voters lack the picture ID now required to vote.  Last week, Donald Trump won the state by 27,000 votes.

The only thing blocking Illinois Republicans from taking this route – aside possibly from their consciences – is the Democratic majority in the legislature.  Republican legislators of conscience will be found backing the original automatic registration bill.

One factor in their calculation has to be the tens of millions of dollars spent by Gov. Rauner and two billionaire allies on legislative races this year.  Who wants to go up against someone willing to throw money around like that?

Which brings us to electoral reform in Chicago.  The most expensive and negative legislative election in state history has again highlighted the need to fix the way campaigns are financed.  In a post-Citizens United world, the only real option for offsetting the role of big money is instituting small-donor match systems. It’s an effort that starts at the grassroots, at the municipal level. New York and Los Angeles have it, as do a number of smaller cities.

Common Cause and others have been pushing the concept for some time.  In the February 2015 election, 79 percent of voters backed the idea in a referendum.  In his mayoral campaign, Rahm Emanuel endorsed public financing of elections.

Proponents introduced a Fair Elections Ordinance in January that would provide a 6-to-1 match for donations up to $175 for local candidates who qualified by raising a significant number of donations from within their constituency, and who agreed to limit all donations to $500.  The matches, up to a prescribed limit, would be financed by a dedicated stream of money amounting to 0.1 percent of the city budget.

That would allow serious candidates to mount competitive campaigns without selling out to special interests, Gladstein said.  He points to a study from public policy group Demos showing that 90 percent of donations in the 2015 mayoral election were over $1,000, and almost 90 percent of donors were white.  “It’s like there are two Chicagos, but only one of them has any political influence,” he said.

The mayor’s office “told us the mayor really likes this,” said Gladstein.  But the office came back with a version of the ordinance that covered only aldermanic races, leaving out citywide elections – including the mayoralty.

When Emanuel subsequently introduced a city budget that had no funding for the donor match program, Common Cause charged that he had broken his campaign pledge.

“We feel the mayor has gone back on his word,” said Gladstein.  “We want to let him know there is a groundswell of people who are sick and tired of the same old politics that only works for the fat cats.”