Why Does Illinois Have So Many Ballot Questions This Year?

Illinois has a record number of ballot measures this year -- nearly all of which Republicans say are designed to mobilize liberal voters to help Democrats maintain lockstep control over state government.
by | September 10, 2014

ELECTION 2014: This article is part of our coverage of ballot measures to watch.

Illinois employers who include prescription drugs in their health plans have covered contraception by law since 2003, but state legislators -- many of whom were around when that law was passed -- want voters this November to say whether they think health plans should cover contraception.

It’s one of three non-binding questions that, when combined with two other constitutional amendments, make this a record year for ballot measures in Illinois -- nearly all of which were pushed by Democrats, who Republicans say have larded up the ballot with meaningless political red meat to buoy the hopes of vulnerable politicians, particularly Gov. Pat Quinn.  
 
Voters will also be asked whether they support increasing the state minimum wage to $10 an hour and putting more money into schools by increasing taxes on incomes greater than one million dollars. Like the birth control question, both are non-binding ballot measures that will do little more than gauge public opinion, which Democrats argue is valuable but Republicans consider a fruitless, state-financed voter mobilization effort because all three issues generate interest among left-leaning voters. 
 
"I think this is nothing but a ploy," said Republican Sen. Kyle McCarter. "There are no results to show that the party in charge, [and] the governor himself, have taken us forward in this state, and they simply want to keep control.“
 
The two constitutional amendments may be more substantive, but they haven’t been completely spared Republican criticism. The first is designed to head off future attempts to pass voter identification laws or other election changes that disproportionately affect low-income and minority voters, who lean Democratic. It states that no person can be denied the right to register to vote or cast a ballot based on a number of factors, including race and income. The second amendment on the ballot, which did have bipartisan support in the legislature, tries to strengthen the rights of crime victims. McCarter calls it the only worthwhile measure on the ballot.
 
Taken as a whole, the number of ballot measures mark a record in Illinois, according to the Associated Press, which found there hasn’t been more than three in one year dating back to 1970. 
 
Democrats defend every one of them, saying they help to show public support around issues, even those that have already been largely settled. Efforts to raise the minimum wage, which didn't muster enough support this year in the legislature, could get a shot in the arm from strong public support, Democrats argue. Besides, they say, Republicans pushed their own constitutional amendments, though ultimately unsuccessfully. Those included legislative term limits, an independent redistricting scheme and a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, which was legalized last year through the legislature.   
 
The Democratic initiatives are no more a ploy than the GOP’s failed measures, argued Steve Brown, the press secretary of long-time House Speaker Michael Madigan, often called the most powerful politician in the state. But aren’t more of the Republican initiatives attempting to address policy in some way? “You could say that, but I think you see efforts to deal with [contraception] in state after state,” Madigan said. “You see voter suppression efforts in state after state. You have a gubernatorial candidate here who wants to abolish the minimum wage.” 
 

House Speaker Michael Madigan, often called the most powerful politician in the state. (AP/Seth Perlman) 

The Republican candidate, private equity investor Bruce Rauner, more recently walked back previous statements on weakening the minimum wage. Despite being linked to that unpopular position, an average of polls has Rauner ahead of Quinn by seven points. 
 
Voters are increasingly disenchanted with Democrats because of a messy budget picture (unfunded pension liabilities and massive deficits) and public corruption, said Kent Redfield, a retired professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Redfield says the GOP’s chances of taking either chamber of the legislature are unlikely because of unfavorably drawn districts, the sheer size of Democratic majorities and, in the case of the Senate, simply not enough races this cycle to turn things around dramatically. But Quinn is undoubtedly in trouble -- “huge” trouble, by Redfield’s estimation.    
 
“Given the state’s fiscal problems and the general dissatisfaction with government, they’ve got to energize their base, they’ve got to get it to turn out, so they’re going to things that need to be red meat for different segments,” he said. “These are clearly aimed at addressing what is perceived to be an enthusiasm gap.”