Daily Herald opinion: Two election reforms that seem to have hurt more than helped

Last in a series

The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Today, we conclude a series of editorials on election reform with a focus on two prior reforms that deserve reconsideration.

The first is particularly timely as Illinoisans go to the polls in three months to elect officials for municipal leadership positions and school boards. Until 1999, these elections were held separately, municipal elections in the spring, school boards in the fall. But that year, in hopes of saving money and increasing turnout, the General Assembly consolidated the election schedules so that all are held in April.

It's questionable whether either original goal has been achieved, but what we do know is that the consolidated elections are now a mass of confusion for voters.

Instead of being able to concentrate their attention on issues and candidates in their local schools, voters now find those decisions conflated with decisions they must make to fill park board, library board, village board, city council and other municipal leadership positions. Throw in the occasional local referendum, and it's easy to see what a dizzying muddle of important choices voters are confronted with.

Voter turnout for local elections has always been low. Now, it appears that those who do make it to the polls in the spring are simply faced with more issues and candidates to sort through. It's time to reflect on whether separating school and municipal elections wouldn't be wise.

A second, even older reform has become so ingrained in the habits of Illinoisans that many of us likely cannot recall when our House of Representatives was made up of 177 members instead of the current 118. The change, driven through a 1980 initiative by a young Pat Quinn and fueled by public outrage over a legislative pay raise, was intended to reduce the cost of government. It no doubt did that.

But it also had an unintended consequence that now defines our understanding of Illinois government - political polarization.

Under the former system, three House members were elected from each Senate district and the political parties could post no more than two candidates, effectively guaranteeing that the minority party would have some representation in every electoral region. The system made unilateral decision making more difficult, encouraged compromise and, it may be argued, produced laws that better reflected the general population of the state. It deserves another, serious look.

Like all the topics we've addressed in this series, considering changes to our consolidated school-municipal elections or the makeup of the House of Representatives should not be undertaken lightly. They demand careful, thoughtful scrutiny.

But, as with the other topics we've addressed - including ranked choice voting, the way we select judges, the transparency we require of all candidates, providing greater information on referendum topics and ensuring voter access - they merit the scrutiny. We mustn't let our democracy flounder simply because we've become comfortable with long habits.

As we start the new year, let's resolve to take up these discussions toward governments at all levels that are more representative, more productive and more trusted.

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