Governor Pat Quinn's "Open Primary" Push Is Fish Food

07/15/2010 10:33 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • David Ormsby Public Relations Consultant, Ex-Press Secretary, Democratic Party of Illinois

It was nice while it lasted.

Governor Pat Quinn on Tuesday stretched his executive authority--along with his goodwill with Illinois lawmakers--and rewrote legislation with an amendatory veto to eliminate the requirement that Illinois residents must declare a party affiliation when voting in a primary election, and in doing so likely guaranteed its doom.

"This bill is an important step towards making our primary elections fairer and more competitive, but it does not go far enough," said Quinn.

Under current Illinois law, a voter must declare a party affiliation before voting in the primary, which is then recorded as a public record. Quinn's "open primary" plan would change that.

However, the original legislation, House Bill 4842, sponsored by House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago) and State Senator Martin Sandoval (D-Chicago), only required the Illinois State Board of Elections to produce an Internet voters' guide prior to the primary election. That's it.

"We cannot allow party affiliations to stand in the way of meaningful choice. Today's action will protect the privacy of voters' party preference and encourage greater participation in primary elections," said Quinn, by way of explaining the gubernatorial fairy dust he had sprinkled on the unrelated bill.

In effect, the Governor wrote a new law. That type of gubernatorial of overreach is considered a no-no by a legislature which zealously guards its constitutional lawmaking authority.

Quinn's action provoked a terse response from Steve Brown, the spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago). Brown said Quinn's bill rewrite is "under review." Translation: it's fish food.

From Senate President John Cullerton's spokesperson, Rikeesha Phelon, the response was longer but equally chilled, equally unappetizing:

"[Senate President John Cullerton] is generally supportive of measures designed to increase voter participation. However, the General Assembly will conduct a compliance analysis to determine if the governor's actions today alter the fundamental purpose of the original bill. This analysis and any formal legislative action will begin in the House."

Meanwhile, House Republican Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego) stuck up for Quinn in order to stick it to Madigan.

"I agree that an open primary system is the best way to protect the voters' right to keep their vote private. Speaker Madigan's staff says they have this issue under review. In my opinion, a voter's right to privacy is fundamental and must be protected."

However, Capitol Fax publisher Rich Miller noted that the idea of cloaking a voter's identity has been found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme court, trashing the "right-to-privacy" idea.

The specific privacy interest at issue is not the confidentiality of medical records or personal finances, but confidentiality of one's party affiliation. Even if (as seems unlikely) a scheme for administering a closed primary could not be devised in which the voter's declaration of party affiliation would not be public information, we do not think that the State's interest in assuring the privacy of this piece of information in all cases can conceivably be considered a "compelling" one.

For Quinn's legislative action to become law, both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly must approve the changes. If the legislature declines to accept the changes, Quinn's gambit dies.

Want to guess what happens next?

Nothing. Cullerton's stress on "compliance analysis" hints at the fate of the governor's proposed open primary. Death. Madigan is unlikely to call the bill for a vote; so, the amendatory language and underlying bill die.

"This is clearly something that should run against the grain of the philosophy of (House Speaker) Michael Madigan who comes out of a political party organization context," University of Illinois political science professor Jim Nowlan said. "My guess is that Madigan won't even deal with the bill and that it will in effect become a vetoed bill and that the underlying bill will be dead."

Quinn, who has long backed an open primary system in Illinois, will likely be unsurprised. The governor, who failed to raise the measure during the regular spring legislative session, has cultivated no lawmaker support. Zilch.

Then why do it?


Quinn's populist gesture--and it's only a gesture because its chance of becoming law is zippo--was splashed, for example, approvingly on page one of Wednesday's Chicago Sun-Times.

By Thursday, however, it was fish wrap.