Daily Herald
Tribal wins blunt democracy in Illinois feudal election
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist
Published: 2/4/2010 12:03 AM

When 60 percent of Iraqis braved bombs and bullets to cast votes in a free election in 2005, President George W. Bush proclaimed the voter turnout as a "major milestone in this march to democracy."

After the fraud-filled 2009 election in Afghanistan left President Hamid Karzai with a victory likely to be less than 50 percent of the vote, President Barack Obama urged a runoff election, saying it "is now vital that all elements of Afghan society continue to come together to advance democracy, peace and justice."

It makes you wonder when that fervent cry for democracy will trickle down to Illinois.

Already a national punch line (for proof, Google "governors in prison" or "most crooked state" or "selling Senate seat"), Illinois' primary election must seem odd to outsiders. One Illinois candidate's loss is blamed on a "blue jean scandal." In a decidedly blue state that sent Obama to the White House and where the public sentiment is against rich bankers, the blue Democrats chose a rich banker to replace Obama. Oh, and in a state where our indicted governor is accused of trying to broker Obama's old Senate seat, we nominated an actual pawnbroker for the lieutenant governor job that has sat vacant for a year without anyone complaining.

Others might mock, but we don't care. In the Land of Lincoln, a groundhog came out Tuesday, saw its shadow and promised six more weeks of winter. But democracy didn't budge from its burrow.

Fewer than one in four eligible voters (and by eligible voters, we mean the people who actually have expended the effort to register) braved the negative ad campaigns and light snow to make it to the ballot box on Groundhog's Day. They didn't see even the shadow of a true democracy, meaning we might have six more weeks of vote counting.

In a state with a population of nearly 13 million people, where there is speculation that we might elect a Republican governor, only about 155,000 people actually cast the votes for that all-important "winning" GOP candidate. That means the Republican choice to run our state will be someone whom 80 percent of Republicans didn't even vote for. Even in a state synonymous with corruption, that doesn't sound quite right.

"Can someone please tell me why we STILL have to declare a party affiliation for primary elections?" e-mails a frustrated Chris Ferino, a 48-year-old self-professed "corporate geek" IT guy from Lake in the Hills. "I understand the premise of primary elections - to determine a candidate for a party - but for independent voters such as myself, who frequently cross party lines during elections, we are effectively being discriminated against and not able to vote freely and fairly."

Well, yeah.

"All those Independents in Illinois just paid for those parties to choose their nominees and they didn't get to vote for them," notes Rob Ritchie, executive director of FairVote.org, a nonpartisan group that pushes for election reform.

While an open primary where you don't have to declare a party might increase turnout, what we really need is an instant runoff system, Ritchie argues. That means voters rank the candidates. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the last-place finisher is eliminated and his voters' second-choice votes are counted. This continues until the winning candidate actually captures more than half the votes.

In 2002, an upstart young senator named Obama sponsored a bill to establish instant runoff voting for statewide primary elections, but it died in the Illinois Senate.

Instant runoff prevents candidates in a crowded field from "winning" elections by losing four out of five votes. The Oscars this year are using instant runoff to decide the Best Picture winner.

While we continue to export out brand of democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan, we could learn a little something about true democracy from Hollywood.