Daily Herald opinion: Judge offers Illinois Democrats a lesson on political integrity; they should take it

In many ways, the heavily partisan law passed hastily in the final week of the Illinois General Assembly blocking political parties from slating candidates after a primary election was an insignificant piece of procedural tinkering. With a Sangamon County judge’s ruling Wednesday, it could become a significant object lesson in the damage that political hubris can produce.

Because Democrats control all three branches of Illinois government, it took little effort and less than 48 hours to shove through a bill last month that had never been previously discussed addressing an issue that almost no one had previously complained was a problem. The bill prohibited political parties — Democrats and Republicans alike — from seating candidates for a general election if the party had no candidate in the primary for the affected race. And, they wrote the law to take effect immediately, meaning that any party efforts to make competitive races according to well-established past practice would have to be halted.

On Wednesday, Judge Gail Noll ruled in favor of 14 Republican legislative candidates who had been slated to represent their party in November according to this practice.

“Changing the rules relating to ballot access in the midst of an election cycle removes certainty from the election process and is not necessary to achieve the legislation's proffered goal,” Noll wrote in a 12-page order.

That “proffered goal” was election legitimacy. Attorney General Kwame Raoul argued the bill was passed “to prevent political insiders from having control over which candidates are slated.” Gov. J.B. Pritzker and some other Democrats declared that made the legislation “an ethics bill.”

Yes, an ethics bill created by hollowing out a previously introduced piece of legislation and passed in two days from beginning to end without transparency or discussion in the midst of the end-of-session crush. And one that applied only to legislative races, the ethics of political insidership apparently not being a problem at the federal, county or township levels.

No one was fooled by the euphemism, and everyone could plainly see the arrogant abuse of power and misuse of the mechanics of government.

What was never so clear is why this bill was so important to Democrats and why so urgent. The 14 slated Republicans will be fighting uphill battles just to be relevant in Democratic districts. They have — or before this petty gamesmanship would have had — little chance of challenging the ruling party’s solid majorities in both chambers. And unlike, say, gerrymandering, which the public has been clamoring against for decades, post-primary slating has barely generated a whisper of complaint.

So, in the midst of a period of deep public distrust of elected officials, Illinois Democrats shoved through an all-but-unnecessary piece of legislation whose real impact was to disenfranchise an established election process and limit voter choice, apparently just because they could. The action further deepened distrust of elected leaders generally and Democrats specifically, and perhaps gave those 14 Republicans an issue to run on.

None of this is to say that Democrats didn’t have a point, generally speaking. Post-primary slating is, to be sure, a backdoor means of creating election competition when a party couldn’t get a candidate to complete the simple process of collecting petitions and filing them for a primary ballot position. And, as Judge Noll acknowledged, legislatures certainly have the authority to set up the rules and standards for elections.

But, as she also declared, they shouldn’t have that authority in the midst of an ongoing campaign.

Democrats can appeal Noll’s ruling, but they would do so at the risk of further eroding their limited credibility on true matters of ethics and, worse, injuring the public’s faith in political leaders. They should learn from this loss, and, if the ethics of eliminating post-primary slating is so important, let it take effect in future elections, perhaps in conjunction with other true ethics issues they’ve been dodging for years.

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