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Republican State Lawmakers Call for Citizen-Led Referendums and Recalls

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flickr/ Mortimer62

Republican state lawmakers — who are in the super-minority in the state legislature —introduced a package of election-focused bills aimed at making it easier for citizens to be involved in revising the state’s constitution, repealing legislation, and removing public officials from office.

In a combined press conference Wednesday, GOP leaders in the Illinois House and Senate expressed frustration with the difficulty their party has had in getting their priorities on general election ballots in the form of constitutional amendments

“The system that has been established since the constitution came into being in 1970, continues to exist,” Senate GOP Leader Dan McConchie (R-Hawthorn Woods) said. “Continues to really be anti-democratic and really concentrates power in the leadership and into only the hands of the few.”

Sen. McConchie referenced a failed attempt to include an independent redistricting map amendment onto the 2016 ballot.

The referendum question was removed before the election after a majority opinion by the state Supreme Court ruled the language of the referendum went beyond the scope of what is allowed under Article IV of the constitution.

Under the proposed constitutional amendment, ( SJRCA1 / HJRCA5 ), constituents would be able to propose amendments to the constitution through a ballot initiative. If a petitioner can achieve enough signatures to equal 8% of total votes cast for gubernatorial candidates in the previous election, their petition will be evaluated and potentially added in the succeeding election.

While the state’s constitution does include a method for citizen-led constitutional amendments, actually getting on the ballot requires amendments to change both the “structure and procedure” of the legislature — a high bar that’s blocked every such citizen-led amendment except one: Gov. Pat Quinn’s “Cutback Amendment” in 1980 when he was an activist.

Other proposed constitutional amendments typically make their way onto the ballot via the legislature.

The Republican proposal would not allow for citizen-led constitutional amendments to change rights granted by the state’s Bill of Rights, nor the amendment initiative process itself.

In addition to constitutional amendments, the GOP also wants to provide an easier path for Illinoisans to petition referendums on laws passed by the legislature.

“If the legislature passes something — like a massive tax increase — that the vast majority of the public says ‘you know what, we don’t like that’,” McConchie said. “They would under this proposal have the ability go out, collect petition signatures, put a measure on the ballot that then would repeal that law.”

Republicans have repeatedly warned of an income tax increase after Gov. JB Pritzker’s signature graduated income tax amendment failed at the polls in November. While Pritzker says he’s currently only focused on cutting the state budget, experts agree Illinois must seek new revenue to balance the state’s spending.

Constituent-led petitions for legislative referendums outlined in two other proposed constitutional amendments ( SJRCA2 / HJRCA6 ) would only apply to public acts which have been enacted for less than 90 days and cannot repeal spending bills passed by the legislature.

Republicans also want to allow for constituents to have more of a voice in recalling public officials — or voting to remove a person from office before their term ends.

Sen. Jason Barickman (R-Bloomington) said the existing process to remove officials through recall is antiquated.

“Illinois has a recall provision that’s wildly limited and only applies to the office of the governor,” Barickman said. “In fact, it’s very cumbersome, it has barriers to it that make it nearly impossible to use.”

On the heels of the 2009 impeachment of ex-Governor Rod Blagojevich, Illinois voters in 2010 approved a constitutional amendment allowing for recall of a governor, but it requires thousands of voters to sign a petition, followed by approval of a bipartisan group of at least 30 state lawmakers.

Republicans’ recall proposal ( SJRCA3 / HJRCA4 ) would allow Illinoisans to petition to recall officials in both state and local government, with the exception of judges.

For most positions, petitioners would need to garner enough signatures to equal 12% of total votes cast for gubernatorial candidates in the previous election. If approved, a special election would be held to determine whether the elected official could finish his or her term.

If an elected official were to be successfully recalled by a three-fifths vote, they would be barred from serving in that particular office for 10 years.

Meanwhile, recalling a state legislator or local government official would bar that person from serving in any public office for 10 years — elected or appointed.

Derek Cantù is NPR Illinois' graduate student Public Affairs Reporting intern for the spring 2021 legislative session.
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