Election Day is five weeks away and it seems there is brewing what ought to be considered a serious problem with the ballot for the constitutional convention referendum. It's almost, to be honest, as if no one looked at the language of the ballot before it was sent to print and mailed to millions of Illinois voters.
Before I include the language of the ballot, let me stress that the Illinois Civil Justice League opposes the call for a constitutional convention and we are members – board members actually – of the Alliance to Protect the Illinois Constitution. Last week, I debated Bruno Behrend, one of the most vocal (and effective) advocates for the constitutional convention. I'll write more about that a little later in this commentary.
I wasn't involved in the drafting of the 1970 constitution but I watched as it was created.
I attended practically every session of the 1970 Illinois Constitutional Convention as a newspaper political editor. In 1970, Illinois desperately needed to replace its 100-year-old constitution. That document was enacted when the population of Illinois was 2.5 million (it had grown to 11.5 million by 1970). The 1870 Constitution was enacted before telephones, before television, before airplanes, -- in fact, before the Great Chicago Fire (1871).
So yes, we needed a new Constitution and the delegates assembled in Springfield did a commendable job producing a good document that has served Illinois well.
But Illinois government has not always served Illinois well – most notably during the past 10 to 15 years. But that has nothing to do with the Illinois Constitution. It has everything to do with the politicians who have been placed into office by the people of Illinois – the same people who would select delegates to write a new constitution.
It's easy for the self-appointed "reformers" to say a new constitution will solve our problems because we can be much more specific in delineating what government can and cannot do – just in case the voters are too stupid to elect qualified (and honest) women and men. (And that argument can be made).
An example of the performance of government can be seen in the official Secretary of State document which includes a description of the "pro" and "con" side of the con-con issue, and includes the language that will be on the ballot.
This proposal deals with a call for a state constitutional convention. The last such convention was held in 1969-70, and a new Constitution was adopted in 1970. The 1970 Illinois Constitution requires that the question of calling a convention be placed before the voters every 20 years. In 1988, the electors rejected the call for a constitutional convention, with 75% voting against calling a convention and 25% voting in favor of calling a convention. If you believe the 1970 Illinois Constitution needs to be revised through the convention process, vote "YES" on the question of calling a constitutional convention. If you believe that a constitutional convention is not necessary, or that change can be accomplished through other means, vote "No" on the question of calling a constitutional convention.
It's hard to see much difference between that and having a ballot read: "Do you believe Candidate Smith should be elected? He received 80% of the vote in the last election. Or do you believe Candidate Jones should be elected. She received 20% of the vote in the last election.
What is particularly staggering about the language – which is being challenged – is that some of the top government leaders in Illinois approved it – or at least signed documents approving it.
House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President Emil Jones, Jr. both signed the House Joint Resolution spelling out the language. That resolution had been sponsored by Reps. John Fritchey, Lou Lang, Mike Fortman and Paul Froelich. Sen. Kwame Raoul was the Senate sponsor.
It should be noted that Fritchey, one of the brighter lights in the Illinois House, is an active supporter of the convention call and was engaged in a debate with Illinois Business Roundtable President Jeff Mays last night. We're not sure this issue came up in the debate.
But it certainly will move from the back burner to at least the middle burner in the days to come – and there are 34 until Election Day.
The Chicago Bar Association has filed a suit in Cook County against Secretary of State Jesse White (who circulated the referendum pamphlet) and against the State Board of Elections. The suit was filed last week, which would suggest that the Chicago Bar Association just learned of the language (perhaps when a member received his mailing from Jesse White's office).
This potentially is a major problem for the state. It's hard to justify the language used in the ballot – even from someone on the "Vote No" side of the issue.
The CBA also challenges the interpretation of a "non" vote and a "no" vote on the referendum.
This might be even worse than hanging chads.
What is revealing, however, is that what appears to be stupidity or lack of common sense on the part of some high level government officials in Illinois has nothing to do with the Illinois Constitution.
A final comment.
Bruno Behrend and others who are arguing in favor of the constitutional convention call are portraying the opponents as the "people in power" who want to retain the status quo. This is an outright lie – and an insult to many groups who are opposed because the call for a convention is not needed. Some of the groups who have joined the effort to block the convention call include the Chicago Urban League, the Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois, the Association of Convenience Stores, Illinois School Administrators, Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Illinois Farm Bureau, Retired Teachers Association, Illinois State Black Chamber of Commerce, Illinois League of Women Voters and the Taxpayers Federation of Illinois.
These are not power brokers, and it's unfair and wrong to suggest they are.
Two groups that have NEVER agreed – but have been generally respectful – also are joined in opposition to the convention call. They are the Illinois Civil Justice League and the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association.