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Why An Illinois Constitutional Convention Doesn’t Seem Likely

In accordance with state law, a provision must appear on the Illinois general election ballot every 20 years asking voters whether or not to call a constitutional convention. That question will be on the ballot this year, but do not expect it to receive the 60 percent affirmative vote that it needs in order to trigger a call.

Business and civic organizations across the state are mobilizing against holding a Con Con, arguing that holding one in the midst of such a poisoned political atmosphere in Springfield could produce a document worse than what we already have.

The League of Women Voters recently announced on its web site that it would not be supporting a convention call, and other notable organizations have done the same. The Teachers Retirement System of Illinois, The Illinois Education Association, and the Illinois Federation of Teachers have all argued against a convention — all citing concerns that a call could result in current pension protections guaranteed by the current constitution being minimized or eliminated completely from a new one.

In addition, 1970 convention delegates and constitutional experts have noted that there has been no significant preparation or in-depth study done on the benefits and drawbacks to holding a constitutional convention in 2010. Preparatory work began nearly two years in advance of the 1970 convention, and Governor Jim Thompson commissioned “The Group of 50” to study a potential Con Con in 1990 (the provision was voted down on the 1988 ballot by almost 3–1). The lack of significant study ahead of November’s vote has scared off a number of constitution scholars and experts from supporting a call.

Though costs for a convention are difficult to determine — most estimates fall between $50–80 million — a sum that even some Con Con proponents admit is a significant commitment for a cash-strapped state. The 1970 convention cost Illinois approximately $14 million, a figure that, when adjusted for inflation, would equal about $78 million in today’s dollars. Concerns over how delegates would be elected, how they would be compensated and the amount of time that would be needed to produce a new constitutional document — all of which affect cost — are contributing to a general feeling of apprehension toward a Con Con.

The main issue driving convention proponents seems to be the need for some kind of a recall election system. Proponents have tried to capitalize on the public’s overwhelming dissatisfaction about Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s job performance to push the issue, but opponents don’t seem convinced that the state needs a convention in order to get recall. Judicial recall seems to be particularly controversial. One law professor expressed concern about it, saying that most voters do not understand legal precedent, which could potentially create a situation in which a judge could be recalled simply for making a sound legal decision that for whatever reason is unpopular with voters.

An intangible factor also working against a Con Con is that Illinoisans are simply not used to voting on ballot provisions. While Californians are used to voting on between a half dozen and twenty provisions in any given election cycle, Illinois voters simply are not used to voting on ballot provisions beyond the symbolic ones on the local level. As evidence, one need look no further than the last constitutional convention vote in 1988, where more Illinoisans opted not even to vote on the convention question than voted in its favor.

The Obama effect on a convention vote remains to be seen. His “change” constituency could see a constitutional convention as a practical way to give a new generation of Illinoisans a new start — or they could be so caught up in the fervor of voting for Obama that they forget the provision is even on the ballot.

There are certainly factors that could work in Con Con’s favor, one of which is Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn. Quinn is probably the most vocal supporter of a constitutional convention, and if he were to throw significant weight behind the idea, it could have some traction headed into November. Also, if a visible figure with a few million dollars to burn (such as a Jim Oberweis or a Blair Hull) wanted to make Con Con a pet project, that could give it some momentum as well.

The Illinois Citizens Coalition, which supports a convention call, has tried to educate voters on the need for a convention, and has even produced a sample constitution. The Coalition’s founders, Chicago attorney Bruno Behrend and Champaign radio show host John Bambenek, say that people are more receptive to the idea of a constitution the more they hear about it.

Unfortunately for the ICC, it appears that the Con Con naysayers will win out this time.

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