Yes, this is far too outlandish for real life, but work with us for a moment:
Suppose a public official rules like a petty tyrant, makes reckless financial moves, bungles the people's business and sows divisiveness. Suppose, too, he's so distracted by FBI probes of corruption on his watch that he can't or won't govern. Just to make clear that the protagonist in this hypothetical example bears no resemblance to any person living or dead, let's toss a bizarre MacGuffin into the plot—a mysterious $1,500 check made out to our man's young daughter by . . . the spouse of a recently hired public employee.
Given all of that, should voters be able to terminate that official? To recall him?
That was the hope in Illinois back in 2007 and 2008. Public pressure built for the legislature to let citizens decide whether to add a recall amendment to the state constitution.
The Illinois House was eager to allow that. A year ago, though, the proposal flopped because 26 state senators—25 of them Democrats—wouldn't let you vote that recall amendment up or down. We call them "The Blagojevich 26." They did the bidding of then-Senate President Emil Jones, protector-in-chief of a governor who likely would have been the first target of a recall attempt.
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That was then, this is now—but Illinois still needs a recall process. Rod Blagojevich was impeached by the Illinois House and voted out of office by all 59 state senators—many of them on that list of Democratic enablers. They plausibly can argue that the system worked without a recall amendment.
Plausibly—except for the inconvenient truth that the ouster of Blagojevich stemmed from fluky good fortune: If not for those federal wiretaps that essentially forced legislators to act, the last governor still would be governor. Illinois voters had no way to remove him from office short of the 2010 election cycle. He'd have stayed in office, making his mischief, at least until early 2011.
That's just wrong. Granted, nobody wants voters hounding well-intentioned officials from office because of their unpopular yet arguably necessary acts. But there's no evidence that this happens often in the 18 states that give voters the power to recall state officials: Only two U.S. governors— North Dakota's Lynn Frazier in 1921 and California's Gray Davis Jr. in 2003—ever have been recalled.
Illinois needs to be the 19th state and, with Jones retired, perhaps it will. The staff of his successor as Senate president, John Cullerton, counts seven House and Senate recall bills now in committees. Our favorite, sponsored by Sen. Dan Cronin and three other Republicans, would permit elections to recall state executive officers, members of the General Assembly and Supreme Court, appellate and circuit court judges.
Cullerton says he won't block legislation that would put a recall amendment on the ballot, although he worries that including judges could crimp their ability to make decisions that could infuriate voters. The obvious retort is that moving to appointed rather than elected judges is a better way to protect their independence from public pressure. But if the only way to get a recall amendment is to give judges a carve-out, that's better than the nothing we have now.
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Whether legislators decide this spring to put a recall amendment on a future statewide election ballot is an excellent test: Will they permit the rest of us this preliminary step to potentially chipping away at their firmament? Lawmakers already know that citizens likely would approve adding an amendment. In a Cook County advisory referendum last November, more than 1.1 million voters—63 percent of those who expressed their view—supported a mechanism to recall pols who hold statewide elective office.
The presence of Pat Quinn, a governor who genuinely wants a recall amendment that would apply to statewide officeholders, is a nice plus. Quinn also wants a ballot measure that, if approved, would allow the public to impose laws dealing with stricter ethics and campaign reforms through citizen initiative, something our state constitution does not allow. That's an excellent proposition.
But legislators need to be the prime movers if Illinois voters are to get up-or-down votes on amending their constitution. As is, we're drawing closer to the unknown future day when the people of Illinois need to oust an inept public official. They shouldn't have to hope that the feds happen to be tapping his or her private conversations.