Citizen activists, not professional politicians, founded our nation. They affirmed in the Declaration of Independence their revolutionary belief that rights flowed from the Creator, and that the mission of government was to secure these rights. The government they created – limited, with enumerated powers, based on the premise of majority rule with protections for the minority – created one of the freest societies ever known. That political liberty allowed economic liberty, and the prosperity that flows from it, to flourish.
One of the fundamental tenets of the political system they designed was the notion that elected representatives would be held accountable to their constituents by means of regularly scheduled and frequent elections. Voters would be given the opportunity to grade their representatives on their performance in office, and to decide whether they deserved another term in office, or deserved to be replaced. The constant promise – threat? – of voter retribution acted as a check on the abuse of power.
But over time, the system has become corrupted. As the size, power, and influence of government has grown, a professional political class has arisen, determined to manipulate the system to its advantage. Rather than take action for the benefit of the common good, they scheme to benefit the connected few. Far too often, the political division that counts is not between Republicans and Democrats, or even between conservatives and liberals – the division that counts is between those who are connected and those who are not.
Gerrymandering – the deliberate drawing of electoral districts to favor one party or group over another – turns our notion of representative government on its head. Instead of voters choosing their representatives, representatives now choose their voters. In doing so, they insulate themselves from popular will, and make the kind of regular electoral turnover envisioned by our Founding Fathers a virtual impossibility. Under the new redistricting map enacted last year, for instance, I’m willing to bet that for the next decade – that is, until the next redistricting – more than 80 percent of the seats in the General Assembly will be considered “safe” for whichever party holds the seat. That’s not turnover, that’s petrification!
As if gerrymandering weren’t bad enough, the advantages of incumbency – many of them voted into law by incumbents themselves – further stack the deck against challengers seeking turnover. Taxpayer-funded staffs that believe their primary mission is to ensure the reelection of their boss combine with massive special interest fundraising advantages and the ability to command media attention to result in incumbent reelection rates that approach 100 percent.
Another taxpayer-funded perk given to incumbent legislators here in Illinois is the system of “legislative scholarships,” in which members of the Illinois General Assembly are allowed to bestow two scholarships per year to students to attend any state university. In practice, this allows incumbents to dole out $15 million every year to benefit their campaign donors or other political allies. While the amount may not sound like much in the grand scheme of things, the principle is.
Moreover, vote fraud – both real and perceived – acts further to corrupt the system, and in doing so, drives participation levels lower and lower.
None of theses changes to the system were approved by us, the voters. None of them were ever put on a ballot and put before us to decide.
The net result of these creeping changes is a feeling among more and more of us that our votes don’t really count. And if our votes don’t count, why bother to participate? Why bother to take the time to educate yourself so that you can cast an informed ballot, if it’s impossible to use the vote to make change in a positive way?
Unfortunately, the net result of more and more people turning their backs on the system is that it increases the influence of the remaining players – which only serves to fuel the downward spiral further.
Illinois faces major problems. Our unemployment rate is higher than the national average, and higher than any of our neighboring states. Our tax rates are too high, and businesses are leaving the state by the bushel. We’ve got an unfunded pension liability of more than $85 billion, and the costs of state-provided healthcare are rising and about to go through the roof if ObamaCare is fully implemented.
But we won’t be able to address any of these problems until we fix the system and make Illinois a place once again where our neighbors feel empowered by their vote.
Consequently, I believe it is time for term limits for members of the Illinois General Assembly. I believe individual state Representatives should be limited to serving a maximum of four two-year terms, and I believe individual state Senators should be limited to serving two four-year terms.
I believe Illinois should use the next decade to devise a redistricting reform that takes power away from the professional political class and puts back in the hands of voters, where it belongs.
I believe we should end the system of legislative scholarships, and, as a member of the state Senate in the next General Assembly, I will work with others across party lines to make it happen.
I believe we should enact a new law requiring a voter to show a state-issued photo ID before being allowed to cast a ballot. In an age where a photo ID is necessary to get on a plane, or cash a check, I don’t believe it’s an undue burden to require a photo ID to participate in a fundamental act of citizenship.
Enacting these reforms will be a difficult undertaking, I’m sure – but so was enacting term limits on the members of the Illinois Republican Party State Central Committee, something I worked for very strongly when I became the SCC delegate from the 14th District. Our success in imposing term limits on the members of the IRP SCC when no one thought it could be done gives me hope that we can make these and other necessary reforms at the state level, too.
I am a conservative, and proudly so. An old conservative maxim says that if it is not necessary to change, then it is necessary NOT to change. But a corollary to that is that if it IS necessary to change, then change must be made. In Illinois, it’s clear we need a change. We can drive that change, beginning here and now.
Jim Oberweis, a candidate for the Republican nomination for state Senate in the 25th Senate District, bought a one-store family business with 50 employees and turned it into a local small business powerhouse with almost 50 stores and 1,000 employees.