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Ends and Means: This Time Around, Voters Are Unaware of the Con-Con Referendum

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

As a news writing exercise, Advanced Public Affairs Reporting students at the University of Illinois at Springfield set out last month to discover what area folks thought about holding a constitutional convention to revise — or rewrite entirely — the state’s 1970 charter.

In interviews with several hundred people, the graduate students discovered most had no idea that voters will be asked that very question in next month’s general election. So the students explained that the current Constitution requires that the electorate be given the opportunity every 20 years to call a convention to review the document, and 2008 is the magic year. They still encountered a lot of indecision.

But when some added, oh, by the way, one of the changes delegates to a convention might propose is giving voters the right to boot officials they don't like, support for a Con-Con increased dramatically.

The informal survey hardly rose to the level of a statistically valid public opinion poll, of course. Most of those interviewed were central Illinois residents, where one would expect support for a recall amendment to be higher than in other parts of the state, for example, Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood.

Still, the students’ findings suggest a couple of interesting points: Not much public attention has been paid to the convention referendum; and lots of Illinoisans are really unhappy with the state’s current leadership (no surprise there, of course). Both observations underscore how much the current climate differs from the prevailing political winds the last two times voters were asked the convention question, in 1968 and 1988.

The successful 1968 referendum, which led to the 1970 convention that drafted the current state charter, was the culmination of a decades-long effort to bring the state’s century-old constitution into modern times. The formal process started in 1965 — three years before the actual vote — when the legislature created a commission to study the need for revision. Two years later, lawmakers endorsed the panel’s recommendations and placed the convention question on the November 1968 ballot. Meanwhile, two other commissions were named, the first to consider the mechanics for a convention, if voters wanted one, and the second to help the convention get started, after voters said they did. Moreover, Gov. Otto Kerner called for a convention in his 1967 State of the State address; later, the Democratic governor formed a blue-ribbon committee headed by well-regarded civic leaders to educate voters on the need for constitutional review, without embracing specific changes.

To prepare for the convention referendum two decades later, lawmakers in 1986 established a special committee to recommend whether a convention was needed. As part of its studies, the panel organized a two-day meeting of delegates to the 1970 convention and commissioned a series of scholarly background papers on the document. The legislature also provided that a pamphlet setting out the major arguments for and against a convention be mailed to every registered voter before the election.

Fast forward to 2008, and virtually none of the public information efforts made in connection with the prior referendums has taken place, with a lone exception: The secretary of state last month began sending out a voter education pamphlet, for which lawmakers allocated $4 million for printing and mailing costs.

While the issue may just be hitting the general public’s radar screen, no strong consensus has developed among opinion leaders on the question, contrary to the experience leading up to the prior referendums.

Forty years ago, support for a convention was widespread, with political leaders of both parties, key business and labor leaders, civic and professional organizations, and newspaper editorial boards all agreeing the 1870 Constitution needed a makeover. Voters agreed, too, by a margin of better than 2-to-1, roughly 2.9 million yes to1.1 million no votes.

Twenty years ago, the general sentiment among political and civic leaders was that the document was still too new — in effect for only 17 years — to need revisiting, and had been working well so far. Again, voters shared that assessment, rejecting the convention call by about a 3-to-1 margin, some 2.7 million votes opposed compared with about 900,000 in favor.

This year, opinions about the need for a convention differ strongly among those paying attention. Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, a fervent proponent, and former Comptroller (and 1970 Con-Con delegate) Dawn Clark Netsch, an equally adamant opponent, have debated the issue across the state (see Bethany Jaeger’s Q&A with the pair on page 25). A broad-based coalition of interest groups — sort of a who’s who among the political establishment — has formed to oppose the call, arguing that whatever changes may be needed in the basic charter can be made through constitutional amendments, without the cost and risk of a wide-open convention.

Proponents don’t seem as well-organized (or funded) but argue their case passionately. One common theme underlies much of their rhetoric: The constitution needs to be rewritten to deal with inept or downright crooked political leaders who ignore voters’ wishes on issues such as pay raises and ethics reform. That’s an appealing argument; witness the reaction the PAR students encountered when the folks they interviewed learned a convention could pave the way for voters to kick out officials they don’t like.

But is it compelling? Clearly some constitutional changes aren’t very likely ever to clear the legislature — to name one, an amendment to appoint judges, rather than elect them — so someone for whom so-called merit selection is the paramount issue probably should vote for a convention.

On issues involving the behavior of public officials, though, rather than the structure of government, perhaps what’s really needed is for voters to exercise better judgment in choosing leaders. Remember, for all the grousing about Gov. Rod Blagojevich, he still won more votes than anybody else seeking the office in 2006.


The students’ findings suggest a couple of interesting points: not much public attention has been paid to the convention referendum; and lots of Illinoisans are really unhappy with the state’s current leadership (no surprise there, of course).

Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield. 

Illinois Issues, October 2008

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