CCIL Testimony Before US Commission on Civil Rights

CCIL Testimony Before US Commission on Civil Rights

As one of the organizations that is out on the front lines, we are sad to report that our democracy is under assault.

Presented During the Hearing on Civil Rights and Voting in Illinois

Good afternoon Committee Chair Lineras and Members of the Illinois Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights. My name is Brian Gladstein and I am the Executive Director of Common Cause Illinois (CCIL). On behalf of Common Cause’s 27,000 Illinois members and its 700,000 members nationwide, I want to thank the Committee for holding this critical hearing on the status of voting rights in this state, and for allowing us to submit this written testimony. Common Cause is a national nonpartisan advocacy organization founded in 1970 to enable citizens to make their voices heard in the political process. In Illinois and across the country, we are leading the fight to ensure that every eligible citizen has an opportunity to cast a vote, free from discrimination and obstacles – a principle that we believe to be fundamental to a democracy that aims for and professes representation of all.

A Democracy in Peril

As one of the organizations that is out on the front lines, we are sad to report that our democracy is under assault. On the national level, we have seen states move to gut the preclearance protections offered by Section 5 of the National Voting Rights Act, following the United States Supreme Court’s shameful decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder . From Ohio to Texas to North Carolina, many states and local governments have been implementing abhorrent voting practices that had previously been barred for their racially discriminatory impact. Meanwhile, after Citizens United, our political systems have become flooded by oversized campaign contributions from a handful of wealthy individual donors and special interest groups. In an interview last spring, NAACP President Cornell William Brooks described the confluence of these two cases as being two sides of the same ugly coin, with “folks who are suppressing and stealing votes before and during an election in collusion with the people buying and selling legislative votes after the election.”

It goes, perhaps, without saying that legal opinions and policy decisions that disenfranchise entire classes of citizens or tend to favor the interests of one group over another shake the confidence in our political system. Indeed, a January 2017 report by a team of researchers from the University of Sydney and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government found that United States citizens have lower levels of faith in the integrity of their elections than any other Western nation. According to their findings, after the last election, the United States ranked 46th out of 161 countries in believing that their elections were free and fair. The primary drivers of concern during the 2016 election cycle included (a) gerrymandered district boundaries; (b) discriminatory election laws that make it harder to vote or register; (c) media coverage, including the myths and realities of “fake news;” and (d) the corrosive impact of big money in politics. As a result, the United States, once again, had lower voter turnout rate (56.9%) than virtually every other wealthy nation.

Here in Illinois, we see a complex mix of challenges and opportunities for voters. On the one hand, we have witnessed the cost of our elections skyrocket and the influence and concentration of the political donor class rise exponentially. The 2016 election cycle was the most expensive that this state has ever witnessed – by far – with more than $134 million having been spent on state legislative races alone. Given that Governor Rauner has seen fit to make a $50 million deposit into his campaign fund as a “first installment” two years before the next gubernatorial election and some of the names being raised as his potential opponents are either billionaires themselves or have access to substantial political action committee money, one can only assume that the cost of our elections isn’t decreasing anytime soon.

Researchers have generally noted that individuals that make large political donations tend to be older and whiter than the average American, and, by and large, they tend to be men. Studies have further shown that the policy preferences of this particular subset of the populace tend to be sharply different than the preferences that are expressed by other more marginalized groups, including women and people of color. These trends appear to hold true in Illinois. In April 2016, CCIL helped to produce an analysis of the Chicago’s 2015 mayoral race. That report showed that over 90% of the money that the two candidates raised came from donors who gave more than $1,000 apiece, and that 52% of the money came from outside the City’s borders. Roughly 80% of the donations to Mayor Emanuel’s campaign came from donors that earned more than $100,000 per year, even though only 15% of Chicagoans actually earn that much each year. 94% of the Mayor’s donors were white, whereas only 39% of his constituents identify as white. While these figures are disturbing in the abstract, we are extremely concerned that this imbalance has and will force governmental officials to favor the wishes of a small number of wealthy donors over the needs of the citizens who elected them into office in the first place.

Despite these serious concerns, we are pleased to be able to report to the Committee that Illinois has recently adopted a number of sensible political reforms that are helping to level the playing field for Illinois voters and to ensure that they have the chance to meaningfully participate in the electoral system.

Towards a Model of Universal Voter Registration

If we want to ensure that every eligible Illinois citizen has an equal opportunity to be heard, we must first ensure that they are all participating in their democracy. CCIL and its partners in the Just Democracy Coalition believe that every citizen has a fundamental right to have their vote counted, regardless of whether they are a Democrat, Republican or independent. That is why our coalition has advocated for and celebrated legislation that makes it easier to register to vote. In 2013, Governor Quinn signed legislation allowing Illinois citizens to vote online. Two years later, the State adopted provisions expanding early voting and allowing voters to register to vote at the polling place on Election Day.  While these provisions go a long way towards strengthening our democracy, there is still more that should be done.

CCIL and its partners are currently working with legislators on both sides of the aisle in the General Assembly, representatives from the Governor’s office and key agencies to enact an automatic voter registration (AVR) model in the state that would automatically register eligible Illinois voters (unless they opt out) whenever they interacted with certain state agencies, like Driver Services. A recent national study determined that this proposal would not only modernize our registration system by using accurate and secure electronic voter lists, but it could add over a million eligible Illinois voters to our rolls.

Last year, Illinois passed an AVR bill with broad bipartisan support, but, unfortunately, it was vetoed by Governor Rauner at the eleventh hour. CCIL and the other advocates are working with all of the relevant stake holders to ensure that the measure passes during this legislative session.

Towards a Model of Public Financing for Elections

Although the Citizens United case has resolved the question of whether it is possible for wealthy corporate interests to fund the candidate that they believe will best serve their interests, there are alternative models for financing political campaigns that will provide an opportunity for smaller donors to continue to hold politicians accountable. In places like New York City and Los Angeles, communities have used a voluntary public financing model for decades that provides for a six to one public match for qualifying donations up to a defined cap. To be eligible to receive these funds, politicians must first demonstrate that they have met with the electorate by raising a requisite number of small donations. Candidates must also agree to not accept any donations from corporate interests or to violate restrictions on self-funding. These programs help to contain campaign expenditures; ensure that politicians remain in close contact with the people that voted them into office; and provide a pathway for citizens with limited access to capital to support the candidate of their choosing or run for office themselves.

Over the last several years, CCIL has been working closely with its partners in the Fair Elections Illinois (FEI) coalition to bring a small donor matching program to the state of Illinois. A little over two years ago, the FEI coalition was responsible for ballot question that found that eight out of every ten Chicago residents supported the public financing model akin to the model that has been successfully used in New York for years. Building upon that support, the FEI partners have been working to draft and support legislation at the state, county, and local levels that would bring a small donor matching model to Illinois.

Our democracy has not yet been secured; however, we have every reason to look towards a day when every Illinois resident can feel that their voice will be heard, regardless of party affiliation or their access to resources. Once again, we thank the Committee for providing us with a forum to raise our concerns, and we look forward to answering any questions that you might have.