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Want fairer elections? These six steps will get us there.

State Journal Register

Sunday, April 15, 2018  |  Column  |  Andy Shaw

Election Issues (not candidates) (39)

One of the ugliest primary election seasons in recent memory is finally history, thankfully. Candidates spent enough money to feed a starving nation and ran TV ads more distorted than mirrors in a carnival fun house. The outcome of an important local contest was tainted by a candidate eligibility fight that remained unresolved at ballot printing time. And our inhospitable election system left a majority of lower-visibility races uncontested.

But, like sloppy, error-filled sporting events, there were still winners, and they’re on to November’s general election, while losers cry foul, or just cry, and civic watchdogs like the Better Government Association think about the game, not the players.

We’re lamenting the system’s failure to give candidates and voters the election they deserve in a healthy democracy, and promoting reforms to consider in the run-up to November. Our wish list includes:

• Establishing an independent, nonpartisan process for crafting legislative district boundaries that encourages competition, and extinguishing the political mapmaking charade that concocts gerrymandered enclaves rigged to keep incumbents in power. Our colleagues at Change Illinois are quarterbacking a campaign that includes an excellent redistricting reform proposal Illinois lawmakers should put on the November ballot as a constitutional amendment. They should let voters ultimately decide the future of mapmaking.

• Moving up deadlines for resolving legal challenges to candidate nominating petitions so they’re settled before ballots are printed and we don’t have another “you’re in/you’re out/you’re in” fiasco like the one that muddled the Democratic primary for Cook County assessor. It’s also time to eliminate a blatant conflict of interest: suburban officials controlling their local election boards and tossing challengers off the ballot on a whim. Let’s depoliticize the process.

• Holding elections on one or both weekend days, when most of us aren’t working, instead of a Tuesday, and moving primaries to a warmer month. And how about blanket primaries where you can vote for candidates in different parties in different races, instead of being forced to take a ballot with only one party’s contests on it? Those changes would make voting more convenient and more attractive.

• Requiring more donor transparency on independent fundraising committees, banning political ads in the final days of a campaign, requiring TV and radio stations to provide free airtime to cash-strapped candidates, and offering modest public financing through small donor matching programs. We can’t take money out of politics, but we can try to level the playing field.

• Implementing online and perhaps even mobile-phone voting when we have software and protocols in place to ensure ballot integrity and minimize the risk of hacking.

• Getting the kinks out of the automatic voter registration program state lawmakers approved last year so thousands of new voters can participate in the November election, and creating procedures for eligible inmates to vote when they’re incarcerated.

Whew! That’s a long list of possible election reforms, and some are more aspirational than realistic, at least for now.

But when we can’t get enough regular folks to run for office, support candidates, register to vote or cast ballots, especially in primaries, we have a problem. And yes, we can certainly blame some of it on apathetic, disengaged citizens — but that, in part, is a byproduct of an election system designed to keep them out and insiders in, and every reform we adopt will facilitate more citizen involvement.

To paraphrase an iconic line from “Field of Dreams,” the nostalgic 1989 baseball movie, “If you build it, he will come.” Not “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, but a flock of new participants — voters, candidates and supporters — strengthening our democracy.

Andy Shaw is president emeritus at the Better Government Association, a Chicago-based nonprofit watchdog organization.