Reawaken our Illinois Republican Party – Vote for a Return to Direct Elections

By DOUG IBENDAHL • June 4, 2008


We strongly urge all Delegates to stand-up for their fellow Republicans by restoring a basic legal right that was taken away two-decades ago, with devastating consequences.


All Republicans in Illinois used to have a say in electing the top leadership of our Illinois Republican Party (the “State Party”). Our State Party is run by a 19-member State Central Committee, one member from each of our state’s U.S. Congressional Districts. 


Our State Central Committee is the political equivalent of a board of directors – it’s charged with setting policy, overseeing operations, and looking out for the best interests of all Republicans.


In the late 1980’s the good-old-boys decided they wanted to consolidate power in Illinois. So they changed the system of selecting that board of directors – without asking Republican voters by the way. The Illinois Democrats kept direct elections for their Central Committee, but we adopted a much more closed, easily rigged system, with some really bad incentives.


The good news is this Convention offers an incredible opportunity. Republicans can go back to direct democracy without a change in the law – but only at a state convention (pursuant to 10 ILCS 5/7-8 of the Illinois Election Code).


This weekend Delegates can be a part of history by reawakening the Illinois Republican Party.


Below are some of the made-up myths you may have heard about this reform – and the truth.


The Myth: “Returning to direct elections will mean only the wealthy will get on the State Central Committee.”


THE TRUTH:  The wealthier candidate is often the loser in an election, especially in Illinois. Our recent GOP primaries are full of examples.


And more to the point, we’re talking about an unpaid party post in the case of the State Central Committee. Making the members accountable to Republicans again will do much to change the job from being a mostly do-nothing ceremonial post, into one where the members have an incentive to become doers, working to build our Party.


Let’s create some common sense performance expectations for this State Central Committee for a change. Let’s measure that performance and share it with Republican voters in advance of election. For example, how many get-out-the-vote efforts did the person lead? How many new Republicans were registered to vote? What were the recruitment efforts for candidates, volunteers, election judges, poll watchers, etc.? And most importantly, how did the Republican vote fare in their districts?


Let’s see who runs for a volunteer service position that actually has some real work involved. And if someone wants to spend a significant sum of his or her own money to attain a volunteer job where they have to work hard on behalf of Republicans – is that a bad thing? Might that be exactly the kind of committed leader we need to reawaken this Illinois GOP?


A campaign for the State Central Committee means more energy and more people engaging and getting Republicans to the polls. Again, how can that be a bad thing?


The Myth: “With direct elections, only public officials or those with high name I.D. would get elected.”


THE TRUTH: Our State Central Committee has lots of public officials NOW – plus there are a few more who are essentially the stand-in for a public official in the district.  If our party really wants to keep public officials off the State Central Committee, there is a simple solution. That State Central Committee could amend its By-Laws to include the prohibition.


If this public official point was truly a legitimate concern, our State Party could call a meeting and make the change today – if it wanted to. But passage would mean several of the current incumbents who are already public officials would have to give up a post.


State Central Committee members who were directly elected would in fact be much more likely to listen to the will of Republicans on this matter. In other words, those who think public officials shouldn’t also serve on the Central Committee should be strongly in favor of returning to direct elections.


As far as someone with the best name I.D. winning, there’s some obvious truth in that. But how about if good Republicans had an incentive to build a strong name through a lot of grassroots work over many years in the trenches? It can be done.


No one is saying this reform will solve all of our Illinois GOP’s ills. But it would be a huge step forward and it would give us back the right kind of positive incentive structure, some true accountability, and at least a realistic opportunity for a true grassroots volunteer to make it onto our State Central Committee.


No one has ever claimed democracy is perfect, but it’s the best system anyone has come up with yet.


 The Myth: “Direct elections will help Chicago Democrats get on our State Central Committee.”


The TRUTH: We’ve got Chicago Democrats for all intents and purposes on there NOW. Think Skip Saviano for example. Enough said.


The truth is it’s our current system that’s encouraged Democrats to seek our party titles. This is evident in Chicago especially. Under our current system we’ve had lifelong Democrats in Chicago Ward Committeemen posts. Our current system encourages the State Central Committeemen not to say a peep or lift a finger, as long as they get that person’s vote to help stay on the State Central Committee.


The simple fact is, under our current system, it’s easier for a Democrat to get a low level post like Ward Committeeman – and then be one of a tiny handful with any vote for a State Central Committeeman.  But it’s unrealistic that the much larger pool of voters in a Congressional district primary would elect a Democrat.


The anti-reform side has turned the truth on its head. Returning to direct elections will do a lot to fix the problems we have with Democrat infiltration RIGHT NOW.


 The Myth: “All of the County Chairmen are against returning to direct elections.”


THE TRUTH: Lots of County Chairmen support the reform including the County Chairmen of DuPage and Cook. Just those two counties alone account for around one-third of the statewide Republican vote in the typical primary.


In addition, every Republican State Senator is on record as being in support of returning to direct elections. Further, all of the Republican primary candidates for Governor in 2006, except for one, indicated support for the reform.


More importantly, no other proposal impacting our Illinois GOP has generated as much energy and support from the rank-and-file in recent years as this direct elections reform.


[Post state convention update: Cook County GOP Chairman Lee Roupas, and DuPage County GOP Chairman Dan Cronin were both on record in favor of returning to direct elections. Roupas made that promise to me and Republicans months in advance of the June state convention. Cronin actually voted for the reform in the State Senate in 2005. However, both sold-out and flipped to the opposition at the state convention in Decatur. They can make their own excuses. We will obviously never take either one seriously again. The ease with which both sold-out when lobbied by an entrenched old guard just makes the case for direct elections even stronger. In our view, Cronin and Roupas now just serve as bad examples no one else should want to be. These betrayals by weak individuals illustrate the exact reason why we need direct elections, and the help with recruiting better Republicans the reform will provide.]


 The Myth: “Direct elections would take power away from the precinct committeemen.”


THE TRUTH: Direct elections make the precinct committeemen MORE important. A State Central Committee member who wants to stay in office is going to have to build a much closer working relationship with his or her precinct committeemen – and the County Chairmen. And the relationship is going have to revolve around getting-out-the-vote, and less on just currying personal friendship.


Direct election of the State Central Committee is crucial to better align the interests of all party officials, at all levels, with the interests of Republicans. This is a big reason why every corporation gives every shareholder a direct vote for the board of directors for example.


More importantly, our current system has in fact been devastating to the precinct committeeman ranks. Note how our State Party consistently refuses every two years to help recruit precinct committeemen to fill the huge number of vacant slots around the state. This is just one of the bad disincentives built into our current system. It’s pretty obvious there’s a major concern among a few insiders about expanding the pool of voters, i.e., precinct committeemen.


Also don’t forget, Cook County (where around 20% of the state’s Republicans reside, and where a big portion of the Congressional Districts are located), doesn’t even have elected precinct committeemen. It can’t by law, and the Democrats will never go along with a change in that law.


In certain Congressional Districts encompassing Cook, a person can now get on our State Central Committee with the votes of as few as 3 or 4 Chicago Ward and/or Township Committeemen. That’s not even pale democracy.


This has created another horrible incentive where many of the Chicago Ward and Township Committeemen races just revolve around someone trying to harvest a vote to get or stay on the Central Committee. A few have learned how to game the system, and they do it every time.


Experience has demonstrated that too many of the lower party posts that are supposed to be about grassroots work, have just become exercises in vote collecting for the big job at the State Party.


Our current system has been a big factor in keeping the GOP in Cook dysfunctional – and Cook is exactly the place where our party HAS to do better if we’re ever going to have a chance in a statewide election again.


If State Central Committeemen were forced to make their case to ALL Republicans, many of the games would stop, and more grassroots Republicans would be running for the lower posts for the right reasons.


There are many truly outstanding precinct committeemen, County Chairmen and other local party officials on the ground right now around the state. It’s those dedicated volunteers who are hurt the most by our current system.


 The Myth: “Going back to direct elections constitutes a ‘risky’ change.”


THE TRUTH: It’s our current system which is odd and extreme. Changing back to direct elections means going back to the sensible system, and the one that’s more like how every well run corporation is structured. Don’t forget, we were consistently a Red State when we had direct elections. Since abandoning direct elections, the GOP Presidential nominee has lost Illinois every time, usually by a lot.


To our knowledge, no other state party in America has a system as closed as the one we’ve tried.  It’s high time we ended the radical experiment that’s been an obvious failure.


Doug Ibendahl is a Chicago Attorney and a former General Counsel of the Illinois Republican Party.


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