Friday, February 26, 2010

Chicago Sigs

Two recent stories, one in the Trib and one in Progress Illinois, highlight the problems with HB 6000, a proposal to make it more difficult to run for alderman in the City of Chicago. The Trib also editorialized about the bill. We echo those concerns; this bill will make it harder for candidates to run for city council in the state's largest municipality, with no apparent public policy benefit to the voters of the city.

There are two key elements to the bill. The first raises the number of signatures a candidate has to gather on petitions from 2% of the votes cast in the last municipal election to a flat 500. This would mean an increase of anywhere from 17% in the 19th Ward to nearly 600% in the 22nd; on average, it more than doubles the number of names required. While 500 names isn't so onerous (it's the same amount as for state House seats, even though House districts are much bigger than wards), it is still a big jump from the current rule.

But the number of signatures isn't the biggest problem with the bill. The second key element in the bill codifies a rule that petition signers can ink only one petition for city council. This has been the rule in other races, but is apparently not in statute for Chicago races -- the Chicago Board of Elections says they are routinely challenged on their application of the rule.

The one-petition-only rule means that once you sign one aldermanic petition, you cannot sign any others -- even if a better candidate comes along later. That is to say, when the guy with the clipboard asks for your help getting on the ballot, what you're really doing is committing to support that candidate over all others. It puts a terrific burden on petition signers.

On the other hand, if you are a candidate and you get out early, it creates an incentive to mop up as many signatures as you can. If you can get 5,000 signers, that's 5,000 fewer people who can sign an opponent's petitions. Getting 5,000 signatures won't be easy. But many incumbents can pull it off. So can some of the groups, like SEIU, who supported challengers in 2007. Furthermore, the signature rule creates new possibilities for candidacy challenges.

Is it good policy? The integrity of the ballot is certainly worth protecting. So what problem is this rule designed to solve? Are there too many frivolous candidates on the ballot? Is there an urgent need to have petition signers commit early to one and only one candidate? We don't see that as the biggest problem facing elections these days. On the contrary, there are too many reasons to toss candidates off the ballot, and this bill only creates more.

We hope the General Assembly will put the brakes on this measure.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Citizens Repudiate Unlimited Corporate Campaign Spending

Last month's 5-4 ruling by the US Supreme Court, which said that corporations have a constitutional right to unlimited expenditures in elections, has sparked outrage among voters of all stripes. According to a poll released by the Washington Post today, four in five voters oppose the ruling. Two of every three voters (65% ) "strongly oppose" the ruling. Opposition was at super-majority strength in both parties -- 85% of Democrats, 76% of Republicans, and 81% of independents.

The high court ruling that prompted this united opposition came in a case called Citizens United v FEC. That Jan. 21 decision threw out over a century of federal law barring corporations from participating in elections. And it's just common sense that corporations can be excluded from elections. Corporations, for instance, don't vote. People vote. And corporations cannot write checks. People write checks; they may choose to do so from a corporate check-book, but it's a person who make the decision to spend money and where that money should come from. Insisting, as a 5-4 majority of the US Supreme Court has now done, that corporations (and unions and other non-persons) have a constitutional right to spend money on elections means that people who have access to corporate check-books have more abilities than to people who do not have access to corporate check-books. That's why so many voters, in both parties, are outraged.

ICPR has a Q&A on the ruling, including its effect on Illinois' new contribution limits law, here.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Kudos on a Couple of Stories

We can't let another day go by without noting the legwork that Daily Herald reporter James Fuller and Crain's columnist Greg Hinz put in on stories about campaign giving to county officials.

Connecting the dots between vendors and candidates is never easy. Finding the links between contributions and contracts takes a lot of digging, a bit of serendipity, and a ton of support from people who know the local terrain. For state-level contracts, this job is made much easier by the Comptroller's Open Book website, but for local units of government, writing stories like these takes an effort. We commend Fuller and Hinz for their efforts..

Fuller's piece was on campaign giving in Kane County. He identified over three dozen entities that gave more than $43K in total to a member of the Kane County Board. All of them were contractors in Kane County, which has no rules prohibiting such contributions despite the appearance of pay to play. Whether these contributions were, in fact, improper depends on why they were made, but until somebody connects those dots, it's hard even to ask the question.

We also want to recognize Crain's reporter Greg Hinz, for staying on top of contributions from contractors that appear to have been funneled to Cook County Commissioner Joseph Moreno. Cook County forbids contractors to make large contributions directly to Cook County Board members, and state law forbids disguising the source of campaign funds. Hinz followed a political group's fundraiser in honor of Moreno and the ensuing contributions from contractors to that group, which appears to have passed the money on Moreno's fund.

Pay-to-play is tricky to prove. It goes in part to the intent of the contributor, and while disclosure rules detail who gave how much to whom and when, they do not cover the why of that transaction. Reporters like Fuller and Hinz have provided a context in which contributions can be better understood.