Referendum Reform

One of the main reasons that enacting political reforms – from campaign finance rules to changes to the voting system – is so difficult is that they almost always weaken the power of the entrenched politicians and special interests who have already “won” the game of politics. Why would they want to change the rules that allow them to profit? 

Political reformers have been tackling this problem of self-interest for decades, but in most other states, they have the ability to bypass politicians through ballot initiatives. While the system of introducing initiatives vary state by state, they generally allow citizens who collect a certain number of signatures in support of a statute or constitutional amendment to have it put to a vote in the state legislature or directly to voters on the ballot. Illinois is one of only five states that has no process for citizens to create initiatives on statutes, the others being Florida, Maryland, Mississippi, and New Mexico. 

In theory, Illinoisans are able to bypass the legislature through amendments to the state constitution directly, but the process for amending the constitution is so narrow that some scholars don’t count Illinois on the list of states with amendment initiatives at all. Since the introduction of the 1970 constitution, only one voter-approved amendment, which reduced the size of the state legislature in 1980, has ever passed.

Ballot initiatives have been crucial to citizens being able to enact major political reforms in other states. California voters passed the state’s top two primary system by initiative in 2010. Voters in Maine, frustrated by a controversial governor who won office with a slim plurality of the vote, approved ranked choice voting via initiative in 2016. Public financing programs have also been passed by citizen initiative, notably Seattle’s “democracy voucher” system enacted in 2015.  

While significant reforms are still possible for Illinois through the established rules of governance, they will be hampered by entrenched winners who don’t want to change a system they know how to win. Without a meaningful initiative process, reform is an even steeper hill to climb.

Democracies often create a higher threshold for enacting certain types of policies. But the Illinois Constitution is unique in closing off certain avenues for policy reform altogether, trapping the state in the world of 1970, when the constitution was written. The lack of a meaningful initiative process thwarts the kinds of political innovation that other jurisdictions have enjoyed, especially reforms that would loosen the grip of entrenched interests and improve electoral competition and policy outcomes in Illinois. 

Because of the success of ballot initiatives in achieving political reform in other states, we propose advocating for a constitutional amendment that would allow more meaningful policy reforms to be passed by ballot initiative. We recognize that there are legitimate concerns about the potential negative outcomes of democracy-by-referendum. Options used to alleviate such concerns around the country include a supermajority requirement, a modified subject matter requirement, and a required post-referendum up/down vote by the legislature. 

Passing a constitutional amendment is an enormous undertaking requiring a sustained effort and considerable resources. However, the lack of citizen input in Illinois holds back change in areas that cut across issues and constituencies and are foundational to democracy. This measure would bring Illinois in line with other states and open the door to passing not just some of the other reforms RFI advocates, but future innovations that may yet emerge and get mired in the entrenched interests of incumbent legislators.    

Read more about this and other reform issues in our report on the causes of and solutions to political dysfunction in Illinois, “The Worst System Money Can Buy: What’s Wrong with Political Competition in Illinois and How to Fix It.”

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