Gov. Pat Quinn issued a surprise amendatory veto yesterday afternoon that would allow Illinoisans to vote in primary elections without declaring a party preference publicly. Was the move legal and is it a good idea?
After signing a much-derided campaign finance reform bill in 2009 and failing to usher through a redistricting reform bill this spring, Gov. Pat Quinn was obviously anxious to brandish his reform credentials in some fashion before the fall election. He picked his moment yesterday afternoon, issuing a surprise amendatory veto that would allow Illinoisans to vote in primary elections without declaring a party preference publicly. (The bill that he amended, HB 4842, was only tangentially related to that issue.)
Illinois' current election law requires that a person arriving at a polling place on Primary Day request a specific ballot -- whether it be Democratic, Republican, Green, and so on. Under Quinn's proposal, voters instead would be handed all the available ballots before they entered the booth. They could then choose in private which ballot to fill out. Also, unlike under the current system, their party affiliation would not become a matter of public record.
This unexpected decision leads to two questions. First, is this amendatory veto even constitutional? The Illinois Constitution clearly allows the governor to return a bill to the General Assembly after making specific recommendations. What's odd about this particular veto is that Quinn's message does not modify the underlying bill, which mandates that the State Board of Elections to publish voter guides for primaries. Rather, Quinn added several new sections to that bill and then dropped in language authorizing the so-called "open primary." "That's not how the process is supposed to work," says David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
Even so, it's possible that the veto would survive a court challenge. The governor stated yesterday that the underlying bill doesn't go far enough to make Illinois' primary elections "fairer and more competitive." He went on to argue that his change would do just that. Capitol Fax commenters also point out that there's legal precedent for giving the executive branch broad leeway to make these unilateral changes.
So apart from the constitutional questions, is it good policy?
Quinn's rationale is pretty simple: Some voters are discouraged from participating in elections because doing so theoretically publicizes their political allegiances. Some avoid the ballot box because they worry about being punished economically in the job market. This is particularly a problem for government employees, as Quinn's Reform Commission noted in its report (PDF) last April:
A common method of enforcing political patronage is by checking an employee’s voting record, particularly in primaries. The Commission recommends that primaries should be open and votes should be secret in order to combat patronage and prevent intimidation of public employees by party leaders.
Defenders of Illinois' existing law are warning that Quinn's proposed system would allow voters from other parties to "cross over" and attempt to affect their opposing party's primaries. (Though it's hard to imagine that happening on a large enough scale to have a real impact.)
Not surprisingly, political operatives and party leaders like the current process because it provides them with a wealth of useful information for get-out-the-vote efforts and fundraising pitches. Likewise, government watchdogs would lose access to the voting history of lobbyists, contractors, and other players in state government.
The ultimate question is whether it would be worth surrendering that data in order to boost voter turnout.
This spring, the State Senate rejected an almost identical primary reform proposal (SB 1666) by a 17-37 margin. Sen. Bill Brady joined the majority in opposition. Because lawmakers won't be able to consider the governor's changes until after the November election, expect Quinn to use the issue on the stump in the coming months.
Some believe it could be a political winner for the governor. "It’s very popular with the public." Springfield Ward 5 Ald. Sam Cahnman told Quinn last month, as reported by the State Journal-Register. "And [Sen.] Brady voted no. You can have a clear contrast."