A recent Gallup poll shows us just how low Illinois politics have sunk in the eyes of the public: We rank dead last among the 50 states when in comes to confidence in state government.
A shocking 75 percent of those polled--a much higher percentage, by the way, than even the other states in the bottom five--believe Illinois government can't do its job.
Sadly, that number is not surprising. The promise of a government that works for all people is badly broken in Illinois. Every day brings fresh news about the gridlock and hyper-partisanship in Springfield, the sinking approval ratings for our state leaders, and the resulting cynicism, anger, and distrust among the public. Closing in on a year without a state budget? Well, what do you expect, we say with a disgusted shrug--it's Springfield.
Illinois isn't an isolated example of political dysfunction. As President Obama has pointed out, America as a whole desperately needs and deserves a "better politics" at every level of government. In a recent speech to lawmakers in Springfield, Obama noted that a "poisonous political climate" drives citizens away from participating in the political process. And in his last State of the Union address, the president argued that a healthier democracy, in which we all have an equal say, requires two essential ingredients. First, we must change the systems that govern political participation. Second, we have to get more people involved in political and civic activity.
The good news is we can take direct and immediate action now to help level the political playing field in Illinois. Right here in the president's home state, there's growing support for two common-sense solutions that will disrupt politics as usual and make government more responsive to the needs of ordinary people. Each of these reforms would empower voters, and each reflects the core values of any high-functioning democracy: equality, opportunity, fairness, diversity, and transparency.
Reforms for immediate impact
The first reform is to enact automatic voter registration. Two states, Oregon and California, have already done so, and legislators in 34 states, plus Washington D.C., have introduced such bills. Illinois is among them. SB 2134 - dubbed the new motor voter bill -- would automatically register eligible citizens to vote when they apply for, update, or renew their driver's license or state ID. The legislation would make our voter registration process more cost-effective, secure, and convenient. Anyone who is eligible would have to opt-out if they don't want to be registered, instead of having to opt-in under our current system.
The second step we can take toward a healthier democracy is to reform our state's partisan redistricting process. The current process virtually ensures that the game is rigged against giving voters real choice at the ballot box. Our recent CHANGE Illinois report, for instance, found a dramatic increase in recent years in the number of state legislators who were elected without any opposition. (Our full report is here.) And when voters go to the polls March 15, they'll find only five of 52 state Senate races, and only 12 of 154 state House races, with at least two candidates on the ballot.
Luckily, though, a major reform proposal is picking up steam that would give the power to redraw districts to a nonpartisan commission instead of a handful of powerful politicians. Supporters, from the left and the right of the political spectrum, have already gathered more than half a million petition signatures to help place a constitutional amendment on the November 8 ballot that would create a nonpartisan map-drawing commission. It's time to let the voters decide who should draw the legislative maps in the Land of Lincoln.
We, the people, have the power to fix the governing crisis in Illinois. All of us who care about achieving true democracy should resolve to get informed and get more involved in our public life. Whether it's attending a town hall forum, taking someone to the polls or just making sure we vote in every election ourselves and encourage our friends and neighbors to do the same--we all need to do our part.
The late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, "The most important political office is that of the private citizen." CHANGE Illinois is committed to getting more people elected as public citizens who will roll up their sleeves and take the reins of our democracy.
Creating a better politics is up to us.