Open primary bills clear first hurdle

Andrew Thomason

After years of trying, proponents of open primary elections have cleared the first hurdle.

Two separate measures that would end the requirement that primary voters must disclose their party preferences cleared Illinois House and Senate committees this week -- a first for the idea recently.

Currently, a voter in a primary election must declare a party affiliation, and records of such a vote are publicly available. In an open primary, voters would be given ballots for the major parties and cast whichever ballot they choose without any record of party preference being kept.

The issue gained momentum in 2006. On advisory referendums throughout the state, about 80 percent of respondents supported open primaries, according to referendum organizer and Springfield lawyer Sam Cahnman.

In a survey conducted last year by state Sen. Larry Bomke, R-Springfield nearly half of more than 1,500 respondents said they didn’t vote in primaries because of the requirement to claim a political party.

“If there is anything that I hear consistently from people, it is that they don’t like voting in a primary because they don’t like declaring their political affiliation,” said Bomke, sponsor of one open primary bill, Senate Bill 1666.

But keeping records of voters’ political affiliation is important to the parties’ ability to contact members and raise money, Bomke said. Some lawmakers say the current system doesn’t need to be changed.

“I’d be surprised if it passes the Senate. To be honest, I was surprised it passed out of committee,” said Sen. Terry Link, D-Waukegan, who voted against Bomke’s idea Tuesday. Bomke’s bill advanced out of a Senate committee on a 5-4 vote.

“The system has worked great in all the previous years,” Link said.

Bomke says he’s under no illusions that the fight for open primaries will be easy.

“I realize it’s pretty uncomfortable for many of my colleagues to vote for it, but we’ll just have to wait and see,” he said.

Rep. Bill Black, a Danville Republican who is backing another open primary bill in the House, House Bill 825, echoed Bomke’s sentiments. Black’s bill advanced out of a House committee Tuesday, also on a 5-4 vote.

“There are supporters on both sides of the aisle, there are opponents on both sides of the aisle,” Black said. “I’d like to think we could debate it and have an actual vote, but something in my intestinal tract says we probably will never see the bill.”

Bomke and Black said open primaries would increase voter turnout.

“One of the biggest concerns in primaries is political retaliation,” Bomke said. “A lot of people are concerned it might hurt their employment or concerned it might hurt their business.”

Bomke said many state employees don’t vote in primaries because of fear of retribution by politically connected bosses. Black said firing for such reasons was a problem under now ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

“For the last six years, we’ve seen that used to a sickening level … I’ve seen professional careers ruined because they were allegedly a Republican,” Black said.

Others say not disclosing party affiliation could create some complications.

David Morrison, assistant director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said state boards and committees could suffer unintentional repercussions. Many boards now require an equal number of Democrats and Republicans to balance their political makeups, and how members vote in primaries determines their political affiliation, he said.

“Without that kind of test to know what the person’s partisan history is, it is going to be hard for the public to be assured the board is really split to be the way it should be,” Morrison said. “It may cause more problems than it solves.”

Andrew Thomason can be reached atandrew.thomason@sj-r.com.