Jim Dey | Voter apathy threatens passage of Pritzker tax-hike amendment

Jim Dey | Voter apathy threatens passage of Pritzker tax-hike amendment

If voters aren't already sick of hearing about Gov. J.B. Pritzker's proposed progressive-income-tax amendment, they will be 16 months from now. November 2020 is when the issue will be put to a vote.

Between now and then, the public will be subjected to multiple millions of dollars spent on radio and television advertising that either knocks the proposal or praises it as the best thing since sliced bread.

But there's more to the measure than a debate about the merits.

There's the politics.

It's not that often that voters are allowed by the state Legislature to vote on a real substantive amendment to the Illinois Constitution.

Former Gov. Pat Quinn, as much a rabble rouser then as he is now, turned state politics upside down in 1980 when he worked to put the "Cutback Amendment" on the ballot. Voters overwhelmingly approved it, resulting in the elimination of Illinois' peculiar cumulative voting system and a reduction of one-third of state House members. (There were 4.8 million voters who cast ballots. Just 3 million voted on the amendment.)

People have argued for nearly 40 years about whether that was a good idea. But it was certainly consequential.

In 1992, voters were asked about another substantive issue, one involving state education funding. The proposal would have required the state to pay at least 51 percent of the tab for funding K-12 education. Voters said no to the measure, which critics contended would have resulted in sizeable income-tax increases with no guaranteed reduction in local property taxes. (Of the 5.1 million votes, just 3.2 million voted on the amendment.)

As is the case with the "Cutback Amendment," people are still arguing about education funding: How much is enough and where should it come from?

Amending the Illinois Constitution was not designed to be easy, and that's where the practical politics come into play.

For the sake of keeping things short, the news media has been reporting that it takes a supermajority to pass an amendment. That's true, but that's not all.

There are two ways for a proposed amendment to become law.

It "shall become effective as the amendment provides if approved by either three-fifths of those voting on the question or a majority of those voting in the election," according to the state constitution.

Why two ways?

"There will be some voters who cast a ballot but for whatever reason don't vote on this item on their ballot; those voters are included in the simple-majority calculation for the latter ratification," writes Scott Kennedy of Illinois Election Data.

He's referring to voter "drop off," those who choose not to vote in all the elections on the ballot. Voter drop-off plays a big role in the election because the higher the drop off, the higher the threshold for ratification.

"If the drop-off rate is less than 16.667 percent, it's easier to get a simple majority on those voting in the election and three-fifths of those voting on the question; otherwise, the 50 percent threshold is the only path," Kennedy writes.

Drop-off rates have fluctuated over the years. Thirty-six percent of voters who voted in the 1980 election did not vote on Quinn's "Cutback Amendment," probably because they didn't understand it. The same number didn't vote on the 1992 education amendment, probably for the same reason.

But in 2014, just 8 percent of voters didn't vote on the question of a "victim's bill of rights." (Of the 3.6 million voters, 3.3 million voted on the question.) It was a sham proposal that did not provide victims with enforceable rights, but it was easy to understand and sounded good.

The 2016 "lockbox" amendment that promised voters that gas-tax money would only be used for transportation expenses also drew strong participation. The drop-off rate was 14.5 percent. (There were 5.6 million who cast ballots and 4.7 million who voted on that question.)

What's the drop off going to be on Pritzker's tax amendment? Based on an average of numbers from past elections, Andrew Weissert of We Ask America polling projects a 13.51 percent drop off. But he calls that number "a guess, at least."

He said a "more likely scenario" based on the "last three presidential-year constitutional amendments" is a drop off in the range of 16 to 17 percent or perhaps as high as "the 20-to-30-percent range."

Of course, the higher the drop-off rate, the more likely it is that proponents will have to attract "three-fifths of those voting on the question" to win.

That's a tall order, and it's why Weissert concludes that "the path to defeating (Pritzker's) constitutional amendment remains easier than the path to passing it."

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.