Editorial: The limits to politics by referendum

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted5/22/2014 8:29 AM

Pretty soon, we might well be asking, "Do we really need a legislature?"

Already lawmakers have put two constitutional amendments on the November ballot, one ostensibly protecting the right to vote, another guaranteeing certain rights to crime victims. A citizens group has produced a referendum that would change how legislative districts are created. Another group is pushing one to restrict the terms of office of lawmakers. Now, Democrats in the House want an advisory referendum to see what Illinoisans think of increasing the minimum wage, and Republicans are making noise about adding one to see whether the state's voters will approve of an income tax increase.


With the citizens initiatives already facing court challenges and the advisory referendums still mired in the legislative process, it's hard to know just which among all these issues actually will make the November ballot. But still, one can almost hear Drew Carey crying out, "Got a referendum? Come on down!"

We don't mean to belittle the referendum process. We've been strong advocates for the redistricting amendment practically from the beginning, so we know how important it can be to go directly to voters at times. But at some point, one has to wonder whether the process is being used to help develop public policy or to manipulate it. The minimum wage proposal, for instance, clearly may be more about attracting Democratic-leaning union members to the polls than about fair pay. The suffrage amendment seems on its face to benignly uphold the right to vote but is in fact drenched in the rancorous politics of immigration and voter IDs.

For their part, minimum wage and the state income tax are clearly two of the most contentious and most controversial issues facing the legislature this session, so perhaps it is not surprising that lawmakers would be tempted to throw up their hands and seek some more-direct advice and consent from the electorate. But the measures come with some serious drawbacks. Just how, for example, do legislators decide what issues to seek the voters' opinions on? If they want a minimum wage vote, how can they not want one on the income tax? Then, the very nature of these votes as advisory leaves lawmakers room to do or not do whatever they like with the results. The greatest likelihood is that supporters and opponents will merely shape the outcome into a political narrative they already have in mind.

So, don't be confused by the flurry of questions you may be asked this November. The constitutional amendments surely can shape the future of public policy, but they too can be politicized. And advisory referendums -- whether on the minimum wage or the income tax or nearly any other topic -- are not about governing better. They are about delay and politics, two of the things our legislature -- whether we need it or not -- is certainly good at.

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