Cook County Record

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Voters OK'd term limits for their towns, but barriers make applying limits statewide difficult

By Taryn Phaneuf | Nov 23, 2016

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On Election Day, four Cook County communities took action on an issue that many voters in Illinois want to see addressed on a much larger scale.

On Nov. 8, voters in the village of Crestwood and in the cities of Harvey and Calumet City approved measures to impose limits on the number of years their mayors, council members and others may serve in office. Residents of Broadview voted on a measure to limit the village’s president to two terms in office, but the results have been kept under wraps until the Illinois Supreme Court decides whether the ballot question was lawful.

Talk of setting term limits reached far and wide this election cycle, with voters and political challengers voicing frustrations over “career politicians” whom they believe are more focused on keeping their seats than addressing critical issues in the state.

“We know that the people of Illinois overwhelmingly support term limits for state legislators. Polling shows that consistently,” Jacob Huebert, senior attorney at the Liberty Justice Center, an Illinois nonprofit, nonpartisan litigation center, told the Cook County Record. “The reason we don’t get it is because the General Assembly won’t pass term limits.”

If term limits were put in place, it would stop voters from being able to reward lawmakers they like with re-election, he said. But he thinks the chance to check legislators’ power outweighs that downside.

“They’ve used the law to keep themselves in power — to entrench themselves in power,” he said. “We need to be able to break that by term-limiting people out.”

He said state officials have established a system that’s designed to keep them in place: In addition to refusing to consider term limits, they also block changes to the way state legislative districts are drawn; and as it is now, the redistricting process makes it difficult to overcome the incumbent candidate or party in a given district. He offered another example: Campaign finance rules limit contributions by individuals, but don’t limit contributions by political parties or legislative leaders. The Liberty Justice Center has sought to have the campaign finance rules declared unconstitutional by the courts in a so-far unsuccessful lawsuit.

“All these things work together to limit political competition and block term limits in particular,” Huebert said.

So why can’t Illinois voters start a petition to enact term limits the way they did in the Cook County communities? They’ve tried. In 2014, a petition drive to put a measure on the state ballot collected nearly double the number of signatures it needed.

But the attempt was blocked after a lawsuit was filed, relying on a 20-year-old Illinois Supreme Court decision on this exact issue. When it comes to amending the Illinois Constitution on issues that concern the Legislature, voters are limited to amendments that are related to “structural and procedural subjects.” In 1994, the court ruled that term limits don’t fit the criteria.

Both then and now, Huebert believes the court is wrong. In a 2014 opinion article published by the State Journal-Register, Huebert wrote that “term limits are exactly the type of provision the Constitution’s framers thought citizens should be allowed to propose and vote on.”

“There’s a reason why the framers empowered voters to change this particular aspect of the Constitution: Voters need to be able to enact reforms affecting the Legislature because the Legislature never is going to reform itself,” he wrote.

Without a way to enact term limits on a state level, voters’ options are limited. They can impose their will on the municipal level. Or, of course, they can vote out incumbents. But that’s harder than it sounds, Huebert said.

“If it were easy to get rid of the people in office … we might not need term limits,” he said.

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Organizations in this Story

Cook CountyIllinois Supreme CourtIllinois General AssemblyLiberty Justice CenterVillage of CrestwoodCity of HarveyCity of Calumet