The libertarian-leaning Illinois Policy Institute will be trying its hand at candidate recruitment this summer and fall, sending out at minimum tens of thousands of postcards to households the organization identifies as “high propensity voters” who also align with the think tank on issues of “economic freedom,” seeking out those who may be interested in running for office.
Illinois Policy’s outreach drive — a pilot for a possible more robust candidate training program in the future — is being launched in tandem with a new paper from three staff researchers at the organization. The paper argues that because Illinois’ legislative and congressional district maps are drawn with a low degree of competitiveness, incumbents go uncontested because a House or Senate district is all but guaranteed to a Republican or Democrat, leading to lower voter turnout.
The researchers estimated that uncontested races translated to 1.7 million “missing votes” since 2012 — the first election cycle under the state’s current legislative and congressional maps, or an average of 334,000 votes per election year, though presidential election cycles yield higher voter turnout.
“Roughly half of all Illinois House races were uncontested on average,” the paper argues. “That means that many voters were denied the opportunity to support a candidate who is more closely aligned with their own preferences.”
So this summer Illinois Policy is experimenting with recruiting possible candidates to run even in districts thought to be guaranteed to a certain political party or incumbent.
A foray into candidate recruiting
The authors of the paper — Illinois Policy Institute’s in-house economist Orphe Divounguy, data analyst Jonathan Josko and policy research director Adam Schuster — assert that more competitive legislative districts would reduce public corruption.
That’s a theme Illinois Policy has seized upon to its advantage in recent years as the organization has grown. According to 2018 reporting in Pro-Publica and the Sun-Times, the organization’s growth is in large part thanks to wealthy benefactors like a family foundation headed by conservative mega-donor Richard Uihlein and the Rauner Family Foundation, a product of former Gov. Bruce Rauner.
Though Rauner’s hiring and subsequent firing of Illinois Policy staffers in the summer of 2017 didn’t engender the organization many new fans among the Springfield political class, Illinois Policy has transformed itself into a viral content juggernaut, with articles, videos and even illustrations by its staff cartoonist sometimes boasting tens of thousands of shares on social media.
In 2016, the organization also funded a documentary about former House Speaker Mike Madigan and set up showings across the state.
Read more: Citizens United Meets Madigan, The Movie
Illinois Policy’s email list reaches 1.6 million people, according to the organization’s VP of marketing, Austin Berg. Berg and other communications staffers also shape conversations in Illinois Policy’s private Facebook group with nearly 23,000 members. The organization’s investments in search engine optimization have also paid off; Illinois Policy articles are extremely likely to appear at the top of many Google searches concerning Illinois politics or policy.
Berg isn’t shy about Illinois Policy’s reach or growing influence, and hopes to parlay it into the organization’s foray into candidate recruitment. He says educating those interested in seeking public office is a natural extension of education seminars and resources Illinois Policy already makes available to sitting lawmakers.
The Illinois Policy Institute is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, and as such is supposed to steer clear of political campaigning or other partisan activities to keep its tax-exempt status. And while the organization’s libertarian values do align with more conservatives that liberals, it’s not an ideology that fits neatly on partisan lines; libertarian views show up in some Democratic efforts. Illinois Policy has worked on legislation on the same side as Democratic lawmakers in Springfield, particularly on a few criminal justice measures in recent years.
When it comes to campaign literature, Berg said he would be happy to see would-be candidates using Illinois Policy materials when knocking on doors, saying the organization would step in only if someone was misrepresenting its research.
“Anyone running for office is free to use [Illinois Policy’s research] in points that they want to communicate, so long as they’re being truthful,” Berg said. “Republicans and Democrats and Independents and Libertarians and Green Party folks — whoever wants great resources about the state of the state, I would be so proud for them to use our stuff.”
Illinois Policy, the Institute’s 501(c)4 lobbying offshoot, is responsible for the recruitment postcards, which began arriving at households in Chicago on Wednesday. As a so-called social welfare organization, Illinois Policy is allowed to delve into politics, so long as it doesn’t spend more than half of its money in the political arena. The two organizations have the same boards of directors and share staff.
The first tranche of households that received the mailers were chosen through Illinois Policy’s in-house analysis of publicly available voter data. That means households with “high-propensity voters” and those who share alignment with Illinois Policy on concern about economic issues, which Berg claimed transcends partisan lines. The organization has been doing its own voter modeling for at least the last five years, Berg said.
The first round of postcards are also limited to households in districts where the majority of the last five elections have been uncontested.
The postcards feature an illustration of three graying men in suits in a mud pit, in the signature style of Illinois Policy’s in-house cartoonist, Eric Allie. The title of the cartoon reads “Most Corrupt” and the men bear silver, gold and bronze medals reading “NYC,” “Chicago” and “LA.” The mustachioed man representing Chicago is the deepest in the pit and holds up a finger as if to say “We’re number one.”
The back of the mailers expands on that corruption theme, citing an ABC 7 story from last winter that pegged the number of public corruption convictions in Illinois in the preceding two decades at 891 — more than any other state. Illinois Policy’s postcard added more recent convictions since that story ran to that total, telling recipients that’s “roughly 1 corruption conviction per week.”
The mailer goes on to blame gerrymandering in part for the state’s culture of corruption, and warns that Illinois is in for another decade of “uncompetitive elections, unaccountable lawmakers and rampant corruption” — unless the recipient might be someone “want[s] to end Illinois’ culture of corruption for good through honest service in elected office.”
The recipient is instructed to scan a QR code with his or her smartphone, which directs them to an online survey form. The 16-question survey seeks basic contact information, in addition to asking would-be candidates to list “any authors, economists, or publications that have strongly influenced your thinking about politics and public policy” and the “biggest issue facing your community.” It also asks prospective candidates to rate from 1-7 how much they agree with three statements written from Illinois Policy’s point of view, including the assertion that:
“Illinois’ nation-leading $144 billion pension crisis must be solved through a constitutional amendment to allow for benefit reform, such as replacing the 3% compounding [annual cost of living adjustment].”
After submitting the survey form, the webpage thanks the participant for their interest and promises an Illinois Policy team member will be in contact within 10 business days. It also says background checks “will be part of the ongoing screening process.”
Berg said Illinois Policy’s candidate training process is currently a bit undefined, and said it’ll be driven by the responses from prospective candidates who signaled their interest via the mailers. For now, Berg said it’ll be limited to answering questions about how to collect signatures in order to get on the ballot next year and offering crash courses in issues facing Illinois.
“Stuff like that we’re all prepared to do, but it’s still pretty early in the game, I would say,” Berg said.
The postcards will be sent to Illinois households, moving from Chicago to other geographic areas, throughout the summer and fall. But Berg said Illinois Policy won’t continue to send the “tens of thousands” of mailers if they’re not effective.
“So that could switch to digital ads, it could switch to calls,” Berg said of his organization’s outreach.
Do uncompetitive maps = voter apathy?
Illinois Policy is far from the only entity — on either side of the aisle — to note Illinois’ lack of competitive legislative districts in the state’s modern era.
Political scientists have rated Illinois’ current political maps, which have been in place since 2012, as some of the least competitive in the nation, especially in the state legislature. Ballotpedia.org’s Competitiveness Index ranks Illinois’ legislative maps as the sixth-least competitive out of 44 states considered. DavesRedistricting.org, a statistical analysis site built by software engineers and cited by academics, rates Illinois’ competitiveness score as very low, in contrast to other dimensions used to measure political districts, like proportionality and minority representation.
It’s that last factor that Democrats used to justify the new maps they pushed through during the waning days of the General Assembly’s spring legislative session in late May.
Though community advocacy groups begged the majority party to wait for official Census data delayed by the COVID pandemic, Democrats instead used a five-year aggregation of American Community Survey data — information collected by the U.S. Census Bureau — in order to approve maps by June 30, lest Democrats risk losing their partisan advantage to draw the maps. Republicans also glommed onto the advocacy groups’ argument.
Gov JB Pritzker also went back on a campaign promise he made to veto any legislative maps drawn by lawmakers, legislative staff or political staff, first softening that language to say he’d veto any “unfair map” that didn’t reflect Illinois’ diverse population, and ultimately signing Democrats’ maps a few weeks ago.
“Illinois’ strength is in our diversity, and these maps help to ensure that communities that have been left out and left behind have fair representation in our government,” Pritzker said in a statement at the time. “These district boundaries align with both the federal and state Voting Rights Acts, which help to ensure our diverse communities have electoral power and fair representation.”
Illinois Policy’s paper calls gerrymandered maps “voter suppression” — the very thing Illinois Democrats said they were guarding against when they passed new maps on party line votes this spring. House Speaker Chris Welch (D-Hillside), Illinois’ first Black speaker, pointed to strict voting laws passed by Republican-controlled states like Georgia this spring, where it’s now a misdemeanor crime to give food or drinks to voters waiting in long lines.
“Look across this country at what the Republican Party is doing state by state,” Welch said in May, telling his GOP colleagues to take stock of their own party. “That is where the real disenfranchisement begins…Voter suppression efforts by your party. They want five hours, six-hour, seven-hour waits to vote.”
Democrats are also touting a new law that expands voting options permanently in Illinois, including a more robust vote-by-mail program, curbside voting and allowing county sheriffs to establish polling locations at their local jails — something that had previously only existed in Cook County.
Berg and the Illinois Policy paper both said expanding ballot access was a good thing, but claimed uncompetitive districts would negate that gain.
“The usefulness of increased ballot access will be muted by the lack of choices on those ballots,” the paper said. “While making it easier to vote is one way to increase voter participation, Illinoisans’ voices cannot truly be heard until they can choose among competing options.”
The paper theorizes is that a lack of alternative candidates to an incumbent on the ballot reduces voter participation, moving from correlation to causation.
“This is because research shows that as the number of candidates on a ballot increases, electoral participation also increases,” the paper said. “The reason is simple: Voters benefit from having clearly differentiated options at the polls on election day, and having a choice in their elected officials gives them a reason to turn out to the polls. Individuals whose preferences do not resonate with the preferences of any of the candidates on the ballot are more likely to abstain. And maps that repeatedly discourage voters, sending them to the sidelines, represent a serious form of voter suppression.”
John Jackson, a visiting professor of political science at Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, is skeptical of that claim, however.
“Well, they can make an assertion like that but I’ve done surveys for a long time and I know how public opinion works,” Jackson said. “There’s relatively little direct data that would confirm that based on surveys of why people say they don’t go vote.”
Jackson conceded the Illinois Policy researchers could extrapolate from opinion surveys that voters may be turned off from voting if they don’t think their vote makes a difference, and they know their vote won’t make a difference in an election with only one candidate.
“You can assert it,” Jackson repeated. “Not sure there’s a tremendous amount of survey research to back it up and survey research is the only way can really prove that proposition with any systematic data.”
Illinois Policy’s paper claims that on average during each election cycle over the last decade, “more than 4.7 million voting-age Illinoisans live in districts where there was only one option for the state House on the ballot, undermining their representation,” — the voting-age population of the roughly half of Illinois House districts went uncontested in each of the last five elections.
Jackson, who has studied the effect of uncompetitive districts on both the legislative and congressional levels in Illinois, says the state’s legislative districts have become less competitive in the last four decades, especially since a 1980 ballot initiative nixed multi-member districts in the Illinois House that ensured a Republican, for example, could represent districts in the city of Chicago.
However, he said the move to uncompetitive districts is not solely due to gerrymandered maps. It’s also due to economic forces and migration patterns that have left rural areas bleeding population as anchor businesses like factories shutter, and a larger divide between urban and rural America.
“Take southern Illinois, for example,” Jackson said. “We used to be a place where Democrats dominated…Over a period of time, starting in about 2000, that started to change and in effect, southern Illinois became more and more like the American south.”
Jackson believes drawing more and more “safe” GOP or Democratic districts has contributed to a widening political divide. But solving polarization, he said, can’t be just a project for Illinois alone.
Former President Barack Obama agreed with that assertion in a 2016 speech to the General Assembly, where he nearly spent eight years in the Illinois Senate.
“In America, politicians should not pick their voters; voters should pick their politicians,” Obama said. “And this needs to be done across the nation, not just in a select few states. It should be done everywhere.”
But a 2019 U.S. Supreme Court case stemming from mapmaking in Wisconsin all but shut the door on federal courts weighing in on partisan gerrymandering claims.
At issue in federal litigation against Illinois’ proposed new maps are claims not strictly about partisan gerrymandering, but about minority voting rights through the lens of a novel question about whether American Community Survey data can be used in place of Census data for redistricting.