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Are Illinois voters too turned off by corruption to vote?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct, 27, 2010 - Who will it be, Illinois voters?

The incompetent incumbent or the lying extremist? The machine candidate or the one who's anti-worker? The tax cheater or the resume padder? Would you like to poke that stick in your left eye or in your right eye?

During this first election after the Gov. Rod Blagojevich scandal, Illinois voters who overwhelmingly tell pollsters that they want state government reform have been inundated with the same-old, same-old: negative mailings, TV ads and billboards that offer few details about a candidate's philosophy or plan for digging the state out of its financial mud hole, but instead decry the unsavory traits -- real or imagined -- of his or her opponents.

The negativity has reformer Cindi Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, counting down the days until Nov. 2.

"Oh, my goodness. I can't wait until it's done," said Canary. "The ads are awful. They're nasty."

Canary points to the governor's race between Democrat Pat Quinn and Republican Bill Brady, in particular, as a real opportunity for the candidates to reach out to Illinois voters who want change. Quinn, who was lieutenant governor, succeeded Blagojevich after his impeachment in January 2009.

"But the campaign is so ugly and so noisy and in some ways so without substance that the Blagojevich factor may be the least of it," Canary said.

Because both candidates have at times attempted to link the other's campaign to Blagojevich, that aspect may have been diluted, she said.

Canary is concerned when she hears voters saying in interviews that they are turning down the volume of their radios and televisions and not listening to the advertising.

"The truth of the matter is that voters who take their responsibility seriously have to choose between one or the other screaming, angry candidate," Canary said. "And it's particularly disheartening coming on the heels of Blagojevich when my hope would be that we would be talking about leadership. We should be talking about public responsibility to the citizens and the electorate and we should be talking about the very serious problems that we have."

Will Reform-hungry Illinoisans Bother to Vote?

Canary worries that the negative tone of the campaigns will further suppress voter turnout, which tends to be low in midterm elections anyway.

"I think it's very hard not to be cynical in this kind of environment," she said.

At the same time, Illinoisans say they are ready for state government reform, according to a recent poll of likely voters by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

According to the institute's poll, which was conducted by telephone in early October:

  • Illinois voters overwhelmingly support a proposition on the Nov. 2 ballot that would allow voters to remove a sitting governor from office before his or her term expires. The measure was supported by 65.6 percent of those surveyed. Respondents also indicated that they would support the recall of other statewide elected officials, though that is not on the ballot.
  • Voters would support an open primary (where no disclosure of party identification is required) by more than a 3-to-1 margin.
  • Slightly more than 80 percent said they believe the state is on the wrong track, while 62.4 percent said the country is on the wrong track.
  • Respondents also heavily supported term limits for all legislators and limits on campaign contributions.

But while the survey shows that Illinois voters are ready for change, it doesn't mean they'll vote in the election, said John Jackson, a visiting professor at the institute who helped design the poll.
"It's a lot easier to answer the phone than to get oneself to the poll to cast an intelligent ballot," he said.

Jackson said the turnout in midterm elections is traditionally low, and he estimates that only about 35 to 40 percent of the eligible population will make the effort this time around, with about half of those voting in one direction or the other. In effect, about 20 percent of the voters will determine the state's government.

And the negative tone of the campaigns -- aimed at mobilizing the political bases of the parties -- isn't helping to boost the total number of voters, Jackson said.

"We know that the point of negative ads is to drive up your opponent's negative numbers, and the other point is to keep people at home and encourage them not to vote -- a pox on both your houses -- and I think we're getting some of that," he said.

Jackson said that many residents remain apathetic and uninvolved even though the election will have consequences and an impact on their daily lives.

"They'll endorse change when we call them on the phone, but that doesn't mean they're going to go and do much about it," he said.

Canary said that in the wake of Blagojevich's impeachment, candidates should be talking about change and reform.

"This should be the moment," she said. "But this is not the message that we are hearing."

She points to the state's record low turnout in the February primary as an indication that candidates were not reaching the vast majority of voters. She said the tenor of this midterm election is similar to a primary campaign.

"The candidates are going for the base. The vast majority in the middle aren't being appealed to," she said. "I am very worried that we don't have candidates who are putting forward plans that bring us together. This is an election based more on divisiveness."

'Despite the Dirtiness, It's Important to Vote'

Bob Hormell, 64, of Glen Carbon, says it is tedious listening to the back-and-forth recriminations of the candidates.

"I have no respect for you if you are a person who bases your voting decision on the advertisements that have been on TV because they're just loaded with emotion and, to me, half-truths. I just abhor all of them," said Hormell, who has already cast his ballot, taking advantage of early voting in Illinois, which began Oct. 11.

Hormell said he would like to see a nonpartisan group, such as the League of Women Voters, providing a list of questions that all candidates would answer -- instead of political advertising.

Hormell, a retired AT&T director, said he is concerned about issues, such as immigration, which he says was a long time developing and can't be resolved quickly, and also about the underfunding of the state's pension system.

He describes himself as an independent who is fiscally conservative, who tends to vote Democratic but will also vote Republican. He believes that neither Quinn, the Democrat, nor Brady, the Republican, have offered a detailed plan to address the state's budget crisis.

"It's more about what's wrong with the other guy then what I plan to do," he said.

Hormell would support some form of regulation of campaign advertising over the nation's airwaves.

"We need really substantive information that allows us to make an informed decision. And an informed decision is not an emotional decision," he said.

Nereida Avendano, 53, of Maryville has a message for political candidates:

"Stop the name-calling and stress the good they have in themselves without looking for the faults in other people," she said.

She said the negative advertising is childish.

"It's like when you are a child and you blame others for your faults -- I didn't do it," she said

Avendano, who emigrated from Venezuela, said she has voted in every election since becoming a U.S. citizen in 2000. She said the Venezuelan political system has been broken by corruption, and she believes that elections are vital to keeping a democracy sound.

Avendano, who works for Puentes de Esperanza, a ministry affiliated with the United Church of Christ that provides social services for the Hispanic community of southwestern Illinois, said that new citizens often find the U.S. political process confusing, but she encourages everyone to vote.

"Despite the dirtiness, it's important to vote," she said.

Avendano said it is sad that the candidates are focusing on dirty campaigning and not enough on what they plan to do about the state's economy.

"This is a very difficult time in our history," she said. "And it's not just in the United States but worldwide."

Avendano said she has more research to do on the candidates before she votes.

"But I am going to vote because it is my right," she said.

Just How Shocked Were Illinois Voters by Blagojevich?

Andrew Theising, an associate professor of political science at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, believes the fallout from Blagojevich's impeachment is just one factor to consider in pinpointing the mood of the Illinois electorate.

"The Blagojevich scandal clearly was a problem for the Democrats, and in that respect I'm sure there are a lot of people who are in the 'throw the bums out' mode," Theising said. "But Illinois has a history of corruption -- Republican and Democrat both. And I think that news story was more shocking to the rest of the country than to the people of Illinois, so I'm cautious not to overemphasize the Blagojevich factor."

Theising is also looking at the power play in Springfield between the executive and legislative branches, where Speaker of the House Michael Madigan serves as a power broker and where some politicians are taking a hands-off approach to dealing with the state's budget problems.

"The governor is having to do the dirty work in deciding which programs to be cut," Theising said.

And don't forget that Illinois remains politically divided between the always-powerful Chicago and everyone else, he said.

"Downstate, as angry as it may be, usually doesn't have the electoral stature to undo the will of Chicago," he said.

Theising expects a bigger turnout of people with libertarian leanings in this election, including the Tea Party members, but doubts that it will undo the Chicago factor.

As far as that negative advertising goes, Theising points out that it is expensive, and the campaigns wouldn't be using it if it didn't work.

He believes that challengers may be trying to avoid talking about tough issues while they pin their hopes on the incumbents being thrown out.

"For these challengers, their goal is not to mess up and let the incumbent go down on his or her record," he said.

Despite the anti-incumbent mood, which is not unusual in midterm elections, Theising suggests that voters may talk more about change than act on it.

"Even in a bad year, we elect 60 to 70 percent of our incumbents," Theising said, adding that Americans often say they want reform but that does not always mean that they want change.

"We like stability, and we re-elect a lot of our people," he said. "We want reform, but we expect that reform to come from the people already there."

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