To some degree, every election is a referendum, and perhaps never more so than in a presidential year.
But peeling back the Nov. 3 ballot beyond the decision on whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden should sit in the White House, there are a number of issues and candidacies that present their own referendums.
There’s a proposed constitutional amendment that would change Illinois from a flat-rate income tax to a graduated-rate levy. That top-of-the ballot item also could present a referendum on voter trust in state government or how they view the state’s financial future.
There’s a decision on whether U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a member of the chamber’s Democratic leadership, deserves a fifth term. And there are elections involving the state’s 18 congressional seats, including the reelection bids of two suburban Democratic freshmen. Those races could prove to be a referendum on voter views on an ever-more partisan, divided Washington.
In the Illinois legislature, all 118 seats are up for election to the Illinois House and 20 seats are on the ballot in the 59-member state Senate. The election of the General Assembly, with supermajorities of Democrats in both chambers, could present a referendum on its leadership, including longtime House Speaker Michael Madigan, who finds himself ensnared in a federal investigation.
In Cook County, the race between reelection-seeking Democratic State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Republican Pat O’Brien could be considered a referendum on her first term amid controversy as well as what’s left of the power of the county’s machine to deliver.
Overall, the election itself could represent a referendum for voters on how they view the state of the state as a whole, expressing their choices as they face renewed restrictions aimed at countering a new rise in COVID-19.
Illinois' March 17 primary, occurring just days before Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s initial stay-at-home order due to a budding pandemic, was an election unlike what we’ve ever seen. But consider it just a dry run for Tuesday.
A new state law prompted by the pandemic that sent mail-in ballot applications to more than 5 million voters and the decision by voters to flock to early voting sites to avoid crowded polling places on Election Day have prompted both types of voting to soar.
Through Friday, more than 3 million Illinois residents had already cast ballots. The number of ballots sent in by mail in Illinois is nearly 1.2 million above the 370,000 cast in the state in the 2016 election, while the nearly 1.5 million in-person early votes cast was nearing the 1.52 million cast four years ago — with the full final weekend yet to go.
Delays in ballot counting are possible, and there also is expected to be a heavy in-person voting presence on Tuesday among traditionalists who insist on casting a ballot on Election Day.
But there is little traditional about this election, which found many candidates and activists navigating a new world of pandemic politics, using rallies over Zoom in lieu of door-to-door canvassing.
Spurred by Trump’s victory in 2016, the grassroots group Indivisible Chicago Alliance knocked on 20,000 suburban doors in the final weekend of the 2018 election to help elect Democratic U.S. Reps. Sean Casten of Downers Grove and Lauren Underwood in Naperville.
While the door-knocking is out this time, the group has continued to back Casten, who is being challenged by former Republican state Rep. Jeanne Ives of Wheaton, and Underwood, who is facing GOP state Sen. Jim Oberweis of Sugar Grove.
It plans four days of virtual phone banking, even going beyond Illinois to include calling voters in the battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa. Volunteers are also doing limited socially distanced canvassing in southwest Michigan, where permitted.
The group also had more than 5,000 volunteers send 2 million handwritten post cards to voters in 14 battleground states.
Weekend phone banking and text banking is also part of the effort on behalf of the graduated-rate income tax amendment under an effort being run by the labor-backed Vote Yes for Fair Tax coalition.
But the pandemic restrictions have, for the most part, created a made-for-TV election being broadcast to people at home.
On the amendment alone, tens of millions of dollars have been spent on hundreds of TV ads, funded primarily with $56.5 million from Pritzker, who has made the amendment his top agenda item, and $53.75 million from hedge fund founder Ken Griffin on behalf of the opposition.
In the state legislative races, though Madigan remains a controversial figure, he has continued to raise money and has bankrolled millions of dollars in expensive Chicago TV ads through funds he controls to try to elect and protect suburban Democrats in the state House. Republicans have been left to fend for themselves after having been able to count on Bruce Rauner’s wealth during his one term as governor.
In Naperville, Democrat Janet Yang Rohr is challenging three-term Republican state Rep. Grant Wehrli and has owned the Chicago airwaves, running nearly 900 half-minute ads costing $1.2 million while Wehrli has run none.
Over in the Far Northwest Side and suburbs, Democrat Michelle Darbro of Chicago is challenging appointed first-term GOP state Rep. Brad Stephens, the mayor of Rosemont. Darbro has aired more than 900 half-minute TV ads on Chicago’s five major TV stations, costing $1.1 million, records show. Stephens has not aired any.
Regardless of the various subplots on the Illinois ballot, the overwhelming determinant factor in voting will be the presidential election and Trump, said Christopher Mooney, political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“Presidential elections are totally different than nonpresidential elections. The electorate is different. You get a big chunk of voters that didn’t vote before. They are less interested, less engaged and know less about politics. They’re there to vote for Trump or vote against him,” Mooney said.
“It’s everything about Trump. He’s going to be why there’s going to be the turnout. He is why people will vote as they do,” he said.
Republicans shouldn’t count on their repeated attacks on Madigan as a strategy for victories, Mooney said. The party is trying to capitalize on Commonwealth Edison’s admission to federal prosecutors that it provided jobs and contracts to Madigan allies to seek the speaker’s favor. Madigan has not been charged with wrongdoing and has said he did nothing wrong.
“The Republicans have cried wolf so often with Madigan. They’ve been using him for 20 years over and over again. At a certain point, you get numb to it,” Mooney said. “There’s nothing new here. That’s the perception of Madigan. It’s already baked in.”
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