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Election 2008 Sat Nov 15 2008

Fix this Cycle! Illinois' Too-Long Elections

No matter who they supported, most Americans could probably agree on one thing in the recent elections: they went on way too long. The huge surge in early voting reflected eagerness for change, but may also have been in part a referendum by a large, unpolled voting bloc that, exhausted, was way ready to get it over with. After nearly two years of rumors, fundraisers, debates, speeches, vetting, outing, leaks, attack ads, furors over non-issues from preachers to wardrobes, and the omnipresent red-blue electoral map, by mid-October even many of the most hardcore political junkies I know were secretly praying, "Please, God, make it stop."

If you agree that this record-breaking marathon was too long, I have some bad news: the next elections are just beginning. Yes, that's right; in a scant 9 months, petitions will be circulating for the 2010 primary.

"Wait," you ask, "how can that be? That's less than a year!" Exactly. The Illinois legislature, like other states, pushed back its already-early primary. This has two huge effects on the calendar. First, the general election now goes on for much longer, in this case more than two-thirds of a year. But, more damaging, the overall cycle has been pushed back, so much so that fundraising designed for one primary season starts before the previous general election is even over.

This is no accident. In addition to being tiresome, extra-long elections are anti-democratic, by design, and the fact that "our" candidate won should not obscure this for fans of reform.

Long election cycles and early primaries were for years criticized in Illinois by good-government forces. A primary in blustery March, often just after St. Patrick's Day, was thought to depress turnout (except for those pumped up by Celtic pride), and put a premium on the ward operations that could get their patronage workers and "controlled" voters out in weather where ordinary voters would say "forget it" (and often did). A warm-weather and preferably weekend primary, argued reformers who'd studied voting in other states and countries, encourages greater civic participation. Apparently our legislature agreed, because no such proposal ever moved out of committee.

Finally, in 2007, our legislature changed the election calendar -- by making it worse. Buying whole-hog into the war between the states for primary primacy, Illinois me-too moved its election date up, ostensibly to have more influence on the nomination and benefit Barack Obama. In so doing, Illinois did violence to a fundamental principle: that lawmaking should be for the long term, not the expedient, and for the many rather than the few (or the one). Changing the entire election machinery to benefit one man -- even my man -- was offensive. It also was a colossal flop: candidates largely wrote off our primary, the race was still a tossup months after Illinois, and late-voting jurisdictions such as Kentucky and Puerto Rico got a shot to be kingmakers.

Obama is about to move on to the White House, but Illinois is stuck with an election cycle even more wretched than what we suffered with for decades. We should fix this, now, because it is destructive to democracy.

Extra-long election cycles translate directly into extra-expensive campaigns, placing more of a premium on money, mailings, and media buys, and less on ideas and issues. Fundraising and campaigning, especially for those who face re-election every two years, is no longer seasonal, but perpetual. By definition this translates to less governing.

A February election also means an end to the "spring primary"; instead, petitions have to be circulated during the holidays, and all doorbells rung in dead of winter. This, again, favors money over a volunteer operation.

Finally, putting the start of petitioning for 2010 a mere 9 months after the end of voting for 2008 tilts the process toward insiders and those whose obsession with elections the average voter would regard as pathological. Since Nov. 4, normal people with balanced lives are looking for a little break, maybe some time with family, tending to their businesses, or even taking in a movie or football game. But a small minority, in November of 2008, are already meeting to scheme for a run at offices that may or may not be vacated two years from now by officials most voters have never heard of. Right now, in 2008, folks are working to be 2011! And they have to. The calendar dictates this madness.

With the objective of our primary hurry-up safely in D.C., it's time to fix the Illinois election cycle. This is one of many reforms some hoped to accomplish through a citizens' constitutional convention that was instead shouted down by politicians who claim change can happen through the existing system. The burden is now on self-styled do-gooders who opposed con-con to pass some real election reform, starting with a move of the election from a Tuesday in February to a weekend in the middle of May. That would give us all a well-deserved, less-wearying election in both the primary and general. Otherwise, as the Guess Who sang, exhausted voters may say, "Don't come hangin' around my door; I don't wanna see your face no more."

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