House Democrats advance November ballot questions aimed at driving party turnout

House Democrats advance November ballot questions aimed at driving party turnout

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois House Democrats approved legislation Wednesday aimed at boosting turnout by party faithful in the Nov. 5 election by offering voters nonbinding advisory questions on securing in vitro fertilization, protecting election workers and targeting those earning $1 million a year or more with higher taxes to pay for property tax relief.

The comprehensive measure, which now moves to the Senate, also would afford some incumbent protection for legislators in November by preventing political party committees from appointing challengers to fill out legislative ballots if the party didn’t field a candidate in the March primary.

The referenda package was approved without debate on a 67-4 House vote, with nearly 40 Republicans voting “present.”

Ballot propositions to promote voter turnout is a tactic that has been used nationwide, particularly in presidential election years. Around this country, this year’s focus has been on state constitutional amendments securing abortion rights following the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade that returned the issue of legality of the procedure to the individual states.

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, through his Think Big America non-profit, has provided funding to several states considering constitutional amendments to legalize abortion rights, including a donation of $500,000 to groups in Florida.

Pritzker said Wednesday that there is no pressing need for a state constitutional amendment like that in Illinois, where a Democratic majority has enshrined abortion rights into state law.

“We’re focusing on states where those rights have either already been taken away or they’re highly at risk,” Pritzker said at an unrelated news conference. “That’s not the case here in the state of Illinois. And we’re going to continue to expand the rights that we have here. I think it’s less important here than it is in other states that we pass a constitutional amendment.”

But Wednesday’s vote by House Democrats did attempt to capitalize on one bit of fallout of the high court’s abortion decision, a ruling by the Alabama Supreme Court to effectively end in vitro fertilization in that state, with one of the three nonbinding advisory questions they approved for the fall ballot.

Dubbed the “Assisted Reproductive Health Referendum Act,” the measure would ask voters if insurers who cover pregnancy benefits should also cover “all medically appropriate assisted reproductive treatments, including, but not limited to, in vitro fertilization” without a limit on the number of treatments.

Amid the outcry from the Alabama high court decision on IVF, the state’s legislature effectively nullified the ruling. But Democrats have used the Alabama decision as an example of Republican-backed efforts to curb reproductive rights.

A second advisory question borrows from one that initially went before voters 10 years ago. Voters in the 2014 general election were asked if they approved a proposed constitutional amendment to impose a 3% surcharge on incomes of $1 million or more to help fund public schools. That proposal got 68% support from voters, but the proposed constitutional amendment failed in the legislature.

This time, the nonbinding question would if the so-called millionaire’s tax should be imposed to “for the purpose of dedicating funds raised to property tax relief.”

A lot has changed since the question was asked a decade ago. Back then, it was championed by House Speaker Michael Madigan and backed by Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn. Madigan has since left office and faces federal corruption charges. Quinn lost reelection in 2014.

The third nonbinding question, called the “Election Worker Protection and Candidate Accountability Referendum Act,” is an effort to remind Democratic voters of the continued fallout from former President Donald Trump’s effort to remain in office after his 2020 election loss, including the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol aimed at blocking the Electoral College vote count that made Democrat Joe Biden president.

The proposal asks voters if a candidate on the Illinois ballot for federal, state or local office should be subject to civil penalties “if the candidate interferes or attempts to interfere with an election worker’s official duties.”

“We just believe that these three questions are at the forefront of many people’s minds and that’s the safety of election workers, property tax relief, and, following the ruling in Alabama, the whole issue of ensuring access to in vitro fertilization,” said sponsoring state Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea.

The three measures championed by Democrats would be the maximum number of referenda allowed on the November ballot, and Republican state Rep. Ryan Spain of Peoria said the Democratic issues ignore proposed GOP constitutional amendments that included redistricting reform, term limits and ethics initiatives.

“The status of the state of Illinois as a sanctuary state could have been a good question to ask for the advice and recommendations of the people,” said Spain, echoing the GOP’s nationwide attacks on Democrats over immigration.

The measure approved in the House also would move up the petition gathering and filling period for the 2026 election. Under the measure, candidates could begin seeking signatures Aug. 5, 2025, rather than Sept. 2. The petition filing period would move up to Oct. 27 through Nov. 3 from the scheduled Nov. 24 through Dec. 1 time period.

The change, Hoffman said, was requested by the bipartisan County Clerks and Recorders Association, which represents local election officials.

It also would end the practice that allows local political parties to fill unfilled legislative candidates slots within 75 days after the primary election.

Given the partisan-drawn nature of Illinois’ Democratic-drawn legislative maps, some incumbents end up winning their primaries with no general election challenger. The legislation would insulate them from facing an appointed party-designated challenger in the general election.

“In other words, it would make make sure that individuals who appear on the ballot would have to go through the same process that all of us have gone through and that is get the necessary petitions to get on the (primary) ballot,” Hoffman said. He said Democratic research shows no other state allows for a post-primary slating process.

After the vote, House Republican leader Tony McCombie and all or most of the 39 other House GOP members stood together on the first floor of the state Capitol, where she described their “present” votes as a “protest vote.”

McCombie said the bill was “dropped on us at the last minute” and gave no chance to provide for input by Republicans or their constituents. And she questioned whether the proposed ban on appointing post-primary candidates had an “end goal” to “stifle the democratic process.”

“What you saw today was a phony attempt to solicit feedback from voters that was covering up the real intentions of the Democrats’ bill upstairs, which is to eliminate competition in our elections,” Spain said later. “Democrats want to disenfranchise voters so that we can continue to not have competitive elections through the state of Illinois.”

Pearson reported from Chicago.