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As GOP Pitches Constitutional Changes, Political Scientist Sees Potential 'Unintended Consequences'

Kent Redfield
Kent Redfield
Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus of political science at University of Illinois Springfield.

Illinois Republicans have introduced state constitutional amendments that would give voters more control over state laws and officials, along with the constitution itself. A political scientist with University of Illinois Springfield said the bill may give voters too much control.

State Rep. Mark Batinick, a Republican floor leader from Plainfield, said his party wants to empower voters.

"This is more of a position-taking kind of exercise."

"It's always important to have conversations after an election, so I certainly welcome being a party that listens to all sorts of viewpoints and having those conversations,” said Batinick.

One of the amendments introduced, filed in both the House and the Senate, would change the state constitution initiative process to widen the range of amendments voters can put on the ballot.

The process currently allows voters, with a petition signed by a certain number of voters, to propose amendments to the section of the constitution on the state legislature. The number of voters signing the petition must equal at least 8% of the number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election to be valid.

The new amendment excludes only the constitution’s Bill of Rights from consideration for amendments.

Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus of political science at University of Illinois Springfield, said that while the case can be made for why the amendment is a good idea, it could have significant ramifications, particularly for lawmakers themselves.

“There is just a problem with unintended consequences, not just in terms of screwing it up initially, but what happens over time,” said Redfield. “It's very hard to amend the constitution, and once you put something in there, it's even harder to get it out.”

The state’s current constitution, ratified in 1970, is written in broad language, according to Redfield. He said citizen initiatives affecting the whole of the constitution could lead to what he calls a “Goldilocks problem” when it comes to wording.

“The more specific you get, the more likely it is that you are going to have either locked in something that is too big or too small,” said Redfield. “This can get messy in a hurry.”

Redfield said altering the initiative process could also exacerbate already-existing biases in the electoral system.

“It's hard,” said Redfield. “It takes organization and money, and that means that there's a bias in terms of the organized and the wealthy.”

As it stands, Redfield said, the bill is unlikely to pass because of the unwillingness of the Democratic majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly to give up power.

“I think a lot of them would sincerely think it's a bad idea,” said Redfield. “They also just politically, they don't want to share, they don't want to empower the minority.”

Ultimately, Redfield said Republicans probably aren’t worried about how the amendment plays out.

“Part of building legislative capital and electoral capital is position taking, being on the right side, being in favor of things, and this, this is more of a position-taking kind of exercise,” said Redfield. “I think they're more than happy to kind of fight this out […] in the newspapers and in losing battles on the floor of the House and the Senate in very broad principles, ‘power to the people,’ rather than to get down into the weeds of who has the political advantages, and what are the dangers and the unintended consequences.”

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