Democrats muscle through election changes

By Jerry Nowicki, Hannah Meisel and Peter Hancock Capitol News Illinois

State Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, smiles on the House floor after Republicans chose not to debate his proposed election law changes, instead voting “present” and then leaving the chamber for a news conference. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Jerry Nowicki)

SPRINGFIELD – Supermajority Democrats in the Illinois House moved quickly Wednesday, May 1 to push through a change to state election laws that partially limits ballot access and adds three nonbinding referendums to the 2024 general election ballot.  

It’s a move that caused minority party Republicans to vote present,” then walk off the House floor without even debating the measure, while four Democrats voted against the bill that would amend ballot laws for the election cycle that is already underway.   

Republicans were particularly critical of a provision that prohibits political parties from appointing a candidate to a general election ballot if no member of that party filed nominating petitions for the primary.  

The minority party also criticized Democrats’ hasty movement of the proposed changes from introduction to floor passage. State Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, filed the amendment to an unrelated bill, Senate Bill 2412, in the morning of Wednesday, May 1 before it was quickly moved to committee for passage, then to the floor within hours. It now awaits action in the Senate.  

House Minority Leader Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, noted at an impromptu news conference in a Capitol stairwell that the GOP has grown accustomed to legislation moving with little public notice – but it usually happens closer to the General Assembly’s end of May adjournment.   

But we don’t understand the sense of urgency right now, unless the goal – the end goal – is to stifle the democratic process through the changes on slating candidates,” she said. 

At the same time the amendment was moving through the House, senators were being briefed separately on the proposed changes. 

In the Senate Executive Committee, which meets one floor below the House chamber, Republican Leader John Curran of Downers Grove argued that changing the rules in the middle of an election cycle would be unfair to potential candidates who are operating under existing rules. 

He also said such a move could add to what he called the public’s growing mistrust of the election system generally. 

There’s a lot of talk around the country about stealing elections,” Curran said, “and the faith in the democratic process has been shaken a bit around the country. I believe Illinois would be adding to that, really, national problem, if it took that step here and changed the rules midstream rather than just waiting to the next election cycle.” 

But Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, noted there are other ways to get on the ballot after

State Rep. Ryan Spain, R-Peoria, speaks at a news conference on a Capitol stairwell to criticize Democrats’ proposed changes to state election laws. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Jerry Nowicki)

the primary has passed.  

A candidate who would want to run for a General Assembly seat after the primary will have to run, as they can today, as an independent or a third-party candidate,” Harmon said. They would no longer be able to appeal to the local party bosses to have them installed as the candidate of a major political party.” 

Privately, GOP lawmakers said they believe the proposed change is designed to influence the outcome of one particular race this year – the 112th House District in the Metro East area, where incumbent state Rep. Katie Stuart, D-Edwardsville, is running for re-election. 

No Republican filed to run in that race in time for the March 19 primary, but party officials say a candidate is being lined up. 

Republicans believe that district is winnable for them. Stuart won re-election to that seat in 2022 with 54 percent of the vote over Republican Jennifer Korte. 

State Rep. Lindsey LaPointe of Chicago was one of the four Democrats to vote no” on the bill, though others skipped the vote. She said she’s not opposed to eliminating the slating process beginning in the 2026 election cycle but said doing it now is moving the goal posts” in the final minutes of a ballgame.” 

That’s problematic for me because as an elected official in Illinois, I’m constantly trying to rebuild trust in Illinois government and politics that many of the people I represent…don’t have,” she told Capitol News Illinois after the vote.  

The measure would also pose three nonbinding advisory referendum questions to voters on the November ballot, including asking whether health insurance plans that cover pregnancy benefits should be required to cover in vitro fertilization and other fertility treatments. 

That mirrors legislation passed in the state Senate last month that would require IVF and other fertility coverage for insurance plans with pregnancy benefits that are sponsored by companies with 25 or more employees. 

State Senate Republican Leader John Curran debates proposed election law changes in the Senate Executive Committee on Wednesday, May 1. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Peter Hancock)

The other questions would ask voters whether they’d favor civil penalties for any candidate who interferes or attempts to interfere with an election worker’s official duties” and whether the state should adopt an additional 3 percent tax on income over $1 million. 

The extra revenue would be collected for the purpose of dedicating funds raised to property tax relief” – a perennial concern in a state with the second-highest property taxes in the U.S., just behind New Jersey, according to a 2023 report from The Tax Foundation. 

Illinoisans were already asked a similar nonbinding referendum a decade ago, when nearly 60 percent of voters said yes” to a question about a 3 percent tax on income over $1 million for the purposes of education, which is largely funded by local property taxes. Then-House Speaker Michael Madigan’s push for the so-called millionaire’s tax was seen as a poke at then-gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner, a self-funded Republican who ultimately won the governor’s race and spent his four-year term fighting with the powerful Democratic speaker. 

Tony McCombie said Republicans had offered bills aimed at property tax relief on several occasions in recent years. She and state Rep. Ryan Spain, R-Peoria, argued the referendums were a distraction.  

What you saw today was a phony attempt to solicit feedback from voters that was covering up the real intention to the Democrats’ bill upstairs, which is to eliminate competition in our elections,” Spain said. 

As state law limits the number of questions on a statewide ballot to three, SB 2412 would also crowd out the possibility of any citizen-initiated questions from making it to the ballot.