A political game that voters can’t win

Residents all over Illinois are being disenfranchised and disrespected by the appointment roulette played by the ruling class.

The uproar is rich over how the state representative seat formerly held by indicted Luis Arroyo will be filled.

House Speaker Michael Madigan warned he would challenge the results if committeemen from the district met and used weighted votes from Arroyo, who also is the 36th Ward Democratic committeeman, to name a successor.

Chicago Ald. Ariel Reboyras, 30th, also a committeeman, used his ward’s votes and Arroyo’s proxy votes to appoint Peoples Gas executive Eva-Dina Delgado. Reboyras and others argue the interests of the 36th Ward should not be disenfranchised by being excluded from the process. Madigan argues using the votes of a former lawmaker charged with bribing another calls their legitimacy into question.

Both sides have their points, but let’s not act as if this appointment process hasn’t been a richly rigged deal from the get-go. Politicians from both major parties have been voting for themselves and their friends, cutting deals and cutting out voters for decades, ad nauseam.

State Sen. Robert Martwick threatened he and others would “all walk out of the room” if Arroyo participated in naming his successor. This, after Martwick was appointed to his Senate seat this summer by casting votes for himself. Somehow, that process was completely legitimate. In the Arroyo successor meeting, Martwick ended up giving his votes to someone else. He neither walked in nor out of the appointment meeting.

The truth: Voters all over Illinois are being disenfranchised and disrespected by the appointment game played by the ruling class.

Martwick in June became the new state senator for the 10th District. Local Democratic committeemen, including Martwick himself, selected him to replace former Sen. John Mulroe, a Chicago Democrat who stepped down earlier that month after being appointed a Cook County judge.

At about the same time, local Republican leaders named Rosemont Mayor Brad Stephens to a House seat vacated by Michael McAuliffe, who retired June 17 after 23 years in the legislature. His father, Roger McAuliffe, held the seat for 23 years before that. 

When Martwick and Stephens do eventually face election, they’ll do it as incumbents and have huge legs up on any competitors bold enough to challenge them.

There’s been a bevy of these appointments lately after several lawmakers bailed following the years-long budget impasse and after several of them were tapped to work for Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

At least 19 representatives of the current 118-member Illinois House were not chosen by voters when they first were seated, according to lawmakers’ biographical information on Ballotpedia. In the Illinois Senate, nearly a quarter of the 59-member chamber—14 senators—is filled by people who were appointed, not elected.

Consider the controversy when former state Sen. Toi Hutchinson resigned recently to be Pritzker’s pot czar. (Hutchinson, by the way, was appointed in 2009.) Racial tensions have surfaced after a white man was chosen to fill the seat over three women, two of whom are black and who have more political experience than appointee Patrick Joyce, according to Politico Illinois Playbook.

Soon-to-be-resigning Illinois Senate President John Cullerton first was appointed to his seat back in 1991.

What will happen to the Arroyo replacement? We’ll see. But lawmakers are scrambling to appoint an ethics commission and develop ethics and lobbying proposals in the shadow of the ongoing federal corruption investigation into Arroyo and who knows how many others.

Perhaps they could start by canning appointments. Perhaps they could suggest voters decide who fills seats when they become vacant. That is, in fact, what 25 other states do, according to Ballotpedia. They hold special elections.

Yes, it’s probably true that turnout isn’t great in a special election, making it easier for party bosses to work for the outcome they want. There’s also a cost involved. But there’s a principle at play, too.

Shouldn’t voters get to choose who wears that mantle of incumbency? Shouldn’t voters decide who represents them for a year or two?

Madeleine Doubek is the executive director of Change Illinois, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for ethical and efficient government.

This column originally appeared in Crain’s Chicago Business.