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Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011 01:24 pm

False start to campaign for open primary

Petition would likely be challenged

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A candidate for the Democratic nomination for the state's 48th Senate District, Bill Clutter greets parade-goers during the 2011 Illinois State Fair Twilight Parade.
PHOTO BY GINNY LEE

Expect a bit more tweaking, Bill Clutter says, after twice changing a proposal for amending the Illinois Constitution through voter initiative.

A Democratic candidate for the 48th Senate District, Clutter on Sept. 7 announced a petition drive to institute open primaries – preliminary elections in which voters would not be required to divulge their party affiliations – for General Assembly elections.

A few days after his initial announcement, Clutter swapped out the open primaries petition for one seeking several other changes to the General Assembly in addition to open primaries. The second proposal includes term limits, shorter Senate terms, the elimination of single-member House districts, and cumulative voting in general elections. Cumulative voting is an election system in which each voter can issue more than one vote to the same or different candidates in the same political contest, and multiple candidates win to represent the same district.

The first petition, Clutter says, didn’t meet constitutional requirements as previously interpreted by the Illinois Supreme Court. “I don’t want to engage in an effort that’s going to be struck down by the courts,” Clutter says. “I think voters are really interested in true political reform, not just bills or legislation that claim to be reform. With this amendment, this would revolutionize the current political structure of the General Assembly.”

After posting the second open primary petition on www.illinoisopenprimary.com, Clutter a few days later added language to eliminate inconsistencies the proposal otherwise would have created within the Constitution. Asked earlier this week about election lawyers’ opinions that parts of the measure still wouldn’t survive an Illinois Supreme Court challenge, Clutter says he is now planning to change the proposal again, this time to eliminate a call for a six-term limit in the General Assembly, an idea already struck down as unconstitutional through voter initiative.

“When someone first reads the Constitution you think that this is a way to bring about an open primary, but the more layers of the onion you peel you realize it’s a very complicated process,” Clutter says, adding that he’s not sure when he’ll release the final version of the petition.

For the measure to be placed on the ballot, Clutter will need to collect at least 298,400 signatures, but even then it will surely end up in court, says Ron Michaelson, visiting professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield and executive director of the Illinois State Board of Elections from 1976 until 2003.

“In this case, I think the potential opponents would be many. This greatly upsets the apple cart of how the electoral process would work,” he says. “When the consequences of change are pretty unclear and uncertain, the most comfortable thing to do is to protect the status quo.”

Clutter’s petition seeks to eliminate 118 individual representative districts in favor of 59 three-member legislative districts. Currently, one senator is elected from each of 59 legislative districts, inside of which are nested two representative districts. Under Clutter’s cumulative voting proposal, candidates in the same race would fill all three positions within each legislative district, with the Senate seat going to the top vote-getter while the House seats would go to the second and third place finishers. Clutter says the cumulative voting proposal would increase minority party representation.

Clutter says that if he gathers enough signatures but his proposal is later struck down by the courts, broadening the scope of citizens’ initiatives in Illinois should be pushed at a future constitutional convention.

Opposing Clutter in the Democratic primary is Andy Manar, who says he supports the idea of open primaries but thinks Clutter might not be taking the best approach. “I think the effort here is going to result in voter confusion because the way that this has been set up – a voter would enter the polling place and they would have a ballot for the General Assembly and a ballot for every other race. … I think there may be some unintended consequences.”

Manar says he’ll reserve comment on the rest of Clutter’s proposal “until I see an actual final product of what the petition drive is trying to accomplish, since it’s changed twice now.”

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com.

To learn more about the Illinois Constitution and past efforts to change it through citizens’ initiatives, see “1970 Illinois Constitution annotated for legislators” published by the Illinois General Assembly Legislative Research Unit.

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