Editorial: Illinois needs open primaries

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

Bills eliminating the ability of political parties to snoop around in citizens’ primary voting records passed out of House and Senate committees recently and should be approved by both chambers and Gov. Pat Quinn.

Illinois law requires voters to declare which party they belong to when voting in a partisan primary election. Records of which party primary citizens vote in are open, and political bosses can use them to determine who is a loyal party member when they dispense government jobs.

This is the rare time we will argue against a record being open to the public. The proposed legislation also is a newsgathering sacrifice for us because we have scrutinized political candidates’ primary voting records for stories.

But privacy in the voting booth and the right to freely participate in an election without fear of retribution is American democracy’s most basic promise. That’s not the system we have in Illinois.

For generations, Springfield and Chicago government workers, in particular, have been subject to Soviet-style scrutiny of their voting records. These workers and others who sought public employment made sure to vote in the partisan primary of the party in power, lest they fall into disfavor with the party hacks who could deny them promotions or even fire them.

Look no further than the Springfield City Council. Ward 2 Alderman Gail Simpson, a state worker, told State Journal-Register political columnist Bernard Schoenburg in 2007 that she voted in Republican primaries throughout her career because “it was suggested” she should, even though her views were more aligned with Democrats.

“I needed to keep a job, and I did that,” she told Schoenburg.

The Rutan U.S. Supreme Court case and the Shakman Decree in Chicago were supposed to stop patronage. But there’s plenty of evidence that the Daley and Blagojevich administrations continued to manipulate what should have been patronage-free hiring processes. Many Springfield residents suspect the same thing goes on in local government here. Open primaries may make it harder to engage in fraudulent hiring, harder to build political armies fueled by patronage, and ensure hiring based on merit.

Springfield Ward 5 Alderman Sam Cahnman deserves credit for vigilantly pursuing this issue. Three years ago, his championing of a nonbinding, open-primary referendum helped propel him to victory over local Democratic bosses in the 99th House District primary. Cahnman can smell a political opportunity, but he’s right about this issue and helped organize successful referendums across Illinois.

But not all legislators get it. After the bills cleared committee, Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat, said, “The system has worked great in all the previous years.”

The only people it has worked well for are the political parties. We don’t have high hopes for this legislation because two party bosses — House Speaker and state Democratic chairman Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton — will decide whether either bill is called for a vote. Both are Chicago Democrats well versed in the needs of political organizations. They know these bills would make their jobs harder, and it’s unlikely either piece of legislation will be called for a vote.

But that could change if enough people call them. The scandal that enveloped former Gov. Rod Blagojevich has made Illinois citizens hungry for reform. Call Madigan and Cullerton and tell them you want a vote allowed on this bill as a part of the reforms the General Assembly has under consideration.

State Journal-Register

Contact information:

House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago

Address:

300 Capitol Building

Springfield, IL 62706

Phone: (217) 782-5350

Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago

Address:

327 Capitol Building

Springfield, IL 62706

Phone: (217) 782-2728