Endorsement: No on well-meaning but uncertain amendments

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted10/19/2014 1:01 AM
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Illinois voters will face choices Nov. 4 on two amendments to the state constitution that seem so obviously benign it's hard to imagine anyone opposing them. In such circumstances, it's always wise to be extremely wary.

We are, and though we strongly concur with the spirit of what both amendments say, we're equally concerned about the implications of what they don't say.

These are binding votes, keep in mind. If they pass, the constitution will change as described in each amendment. That is a serious consideration. Changing the constitution is difficult -- as two failed citizen efforts this year amply demonstrate. And embedding ideas in it can have lasting, unforeseeable consequences. On that score, consider the years of effort that have gone into trying to modify a public-employee pension system that is bankrupting the state, still without final resolution.

If these amendments are approved and their practical effects prove problematic, repealing or revising them will be no simple matter. So, it is extremely important when tinkering with the constitution to be sure that potential outcomes are predictable and clear and that no other remedy exists for the concern at issue. This was the case with the redistricting amendment we championed earlier this year, and even with the unrelated term limits amendment about which we had some reservations. Though they ultimately were struck down on legal technicalities, those efforts addressed fundamental policies and practices of government in clear ways that left no question about their intent or interpretation.

That is not the case with either of November's binding questions -- one purporting to guarantee equal access to the voting booth for all citizens, the other appearing to guarantee to crime victims certain rights before the courts.

The referendums sound noble enough. The voter's rights amendment states simply that no one shall be denied the right to vote or register to vote based on "race, color, ethnicity, status as a member of a language minority, nation origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation or income." Who in America could be against that? Certainly not us. But what happens when special interests begin extrapolating that certain activities -- having a picture taken for a photo ID, for example -- discriminate because they could pose a hardship for low-income voters or because they interfere with some cultural or traditional behavior? Who defines what constitutes a "language minority" and what activities restrict it from voter registration?

That society should debate such complications, perhaps even legislate them, we do not argue. But when they are written into the fiber of the constitution, the opportunities for debate, compromise and accommodation are taken out of the hands of the people and placed at the whim of attorneys and the courts. Considering that these basic rights are already written into the nation's Constitution and protected by all sorts of state and federal statutes, the purpose for this particular clause grows darkly suspect.

The issue, we know, grew out of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last year nullifying a central point of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- one that addressed nine southern states with a history of denying blacks access to the ballot box -- and sparking a new rush to create voting laws in a variety of states. That movement had existed in a number of Republican-led states going back the better part of a decade.

Illinois was not among them, and this measure appears to aim to keep it that way. But it does so with such a heavy-handed solution that it forestalls reasonable action and debate. And this in a state whose longtime reputation for voter fraud is a national disgrace. With that reputation, we should be inserting constitutional provisions that in someone's artful interpretation could weaken efforts for voter integrity? Certainly not.

The victim's rights amendment is even harder to contradict. What reasonable citizen does not empathize with the pain and injustice crime victims must endure? To be sure, we do. Opposing such an idea is so toxic that when legislative negotiators put forth final revisions of a proposal state's attorneys had argued against, the bill passed 59-0 in the Senate and 111-2 in the House.

We understand that toxicity. We take no pleasure in opposing a measure ostensibly intended to provide succor to people who have suffered at the hands of criminals. But we also cannot let our sympathies confound our reason.

Much in this well-meaning amendment -- which, it must be noted, adds little aside from some enforcement provisions to rights already guaranteed in our state constitution -- could actually make it harder for prosecutors to present a case and provide the justice victims deserve. It could also increase the costs and complexities of building cases and accommodating affected parties. These are dangerous concerns, and they ought to be open to reflection, debate and adaptation as we learn from experience with various measures. Embedding them in the constitution will make that harder, if not impossible.

Constitutions are sacred documents. For good reason, they are difficult to change and amend. They are not things to be trifled with or to be used to attract sympathetic voters to the polls. There are better solutions for the ills these amendments identify. We call for applying those solutions and, in these instances, leaving the constitution alone.

Vote no on both the voter's rights amendment and the victim's rights amendment.

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