Eye On Illinois: Lawmakers, not voters, responsible for most amendment referenda


“Is there anything interesting to be found in evaluating whether political pressure had an effect on whether any of the more recently proposed amendments to the Illinois Constitution did or did not make it to the ballot for voters to decide?”

In June 2021, I explored why what we now know as Amendment 1, which would further strengthen union rights, didn’t land on the 2020 ballot along with the graduated income tax amendment, even though groups such as International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 pushed to advance the question.

Scott T. Holland

Scott T. Holland

While the tax vote fell 13-plus points shy of passage, the Supreme Court retention vote that saw Democrat Thomas Kilbride become the first to lose in the 50 years of the current system was much closer, and a stronger turnout from union members might’ve carried him over the finish line.

Two years later, Amendment 1 hasn’t triggered nearly the opposition coalition formed against the income tax proposal, so perhaps it stands a better chance of passage without that millstone. But we’re also seeing potential schisms between organized labor and Democratic politicians, given statewide debate on criminal justice reform leading rank-and-file police members to side with Republicans.

Each of these issues has its own intrigue, but the reader’s question also points to the larger matter of how a referendum gets on the ballot in the first place. For much more on this topic, I commend the Initiative and Referendum Institute (iandrinstitute.org), which is based at the University of Southern California but has spent almost 25 years studying the issue nationwide.

The Institute’s Illinois page traces state history back to 1897 when 250 people met in Chicago to form the Direct Legislation Union, then explores lawmakers’ efforts to suppress public influence, often by granting the power to place nonbinding advisory questions on statewide ballots, then ignoring most resulting outcomes. When voters did finally get a binding measure on the ballot in 1980, they overwhelmingly approved reducing the General Assembly from 177 members to 118.

Amendment 1 is on the ballot because lawmakers put it there, the same as the income tax vote or the transportation lockbox proposal.

Voters can advance an amendment affecting “structural and procedural subjects” in Article IV of the state constitution, which affects the legislature, but not the other 13 articles. The petition threshold is 8% of total votes in the most recent gubernatorial election (8% of 4,547,667 is 363,813).

But even clearing that bar is no guarantee, as seen in 2016 when the Illinois Supreme Court (in a 4-3 opinion Kilbride authored) struck a proposed amendment to establish an independent commission for drawing political maps.

The tallest hurdle is convincing lawmakers to grant voters increased power.

Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.

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November 3, 2022 at 05:18AM

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