[SPECIAL EPISODE] Gear Up for the Illinois Primary

We sit down with members of the BGA’s Policy Team to go over everything you need to know about the Illinois primary; from how to register, to who is running and what their priorities are.

Solomon Lieberman & Patrick Judge / BGA

Illinois' Primary Election is on March 20th. The BGA is your go-to resource for nonpartisan information on many of these races. We sat down with members of the BGA’s Policy Team to go over everything you need to know about the Illinois primary; from how to register, to who is running and what their priorities are. Don’t miss this special episode of Ready Set Gov!

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Q&A with José Sanchez-Molina and Danish Murtaza

Madeleine Doubek: I'm Madeleine Doubek, director of policy and civic engagement at the BGA and I'm joined today by two of my colleagues from the BGA's policy and civic engagement unit, Danish Murtaza and José Sanchez-Molina. Danish Murtaza is the BGA's policy associate. He focuses on policy research and writing and monitoring legislation. He graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a B.A. in Political Science and he's currently working on a Master's in Public Policy and Administration at Northwestern University. José Sanchez-Molina is the BGA's policy analyst. He lobbies for good government laws and researches and writes about policy proposals and best practices in the areas of state government ethics, efficiency, accountability and transparency and he advises the BGA on our policy positions. José has experience in community organizing and public policy both in Illinois and in California and he's directed campaigns on voting rights, immigration, education and equity. Gentlemen welcome to Ready Set Gov and our special pre-primary edition. 

José Sanchez-Molina: Thank you for having me. 

Danish Murtaza: Thank you. 

Madeleine Doubek: We are going to talk today about how to get ready to vote in the March 20th primary election. Danish, you coordinated and compiled for the BGA our Voters Guide and our questionnaires for candidates. Let's start with you and let's assume that I am new to Illinois and I need to get ready to vote. What do I need to do? 

Danish Murtaza: The neat thing about Illinois is that you have a lot of flexibility in order to register to vote. So let me break it down. To start off, you will need one document showing your current address, like a utility bill or a bank statement, and you will need one document that shows your photo, like a passport for example. You will then have to go to your county's website to look up locations where you can register to vote. But a common place is the county clerk's office. If you have an Illinois driver's license or an Illinois state ID, you can also use Illinois' online application to register to vote. That's linked on our BGA Voters Guide and you can use this application until March 4th. Lastly, you can also register to vote on Election Day: March 20th. Same ID requirements apply. You need one document that shows your current address and one document that shows your photo. You will need to look up your precinct and your specific polling location and go there to register to vote. 

Madeleine Doubek: So I can register to vote on Election Day and then immediately cast my ballot? 

Danish Murtaza: Exactly. 

Madeleine Doubek: Excellent. That's a lot of information already right there and it sounds kind of complicated. Is there a way that we can make it simpler for people? You basically need an ID, some sort of proof of address, a bill of some sort, and you need to go to your local election authority, is that right? 

Danish Murtaza: That pretty much sums it up. 

Madeleine Doubek: José, I kept hearing about the fact that Illinois passed automatic voter registration. Why do I have to do any of that? Isn't that the law now? 

José Sanchez-Molina: Yeah. That was a big victory in the state of Illinois. We have over two million unregistered voters. 

Madeleine Doubek: Two million!? 

José Sanchez-Molina: Two million. That's a lot of people that could be voting and participating in our democracy. However, the law is still being implemented because it's such a big law. Different government agencies are working right now to make sure that they implement it right. That means that when you interact with a state agency you're not going to be registered quite yet. They're still working everything out. What I would say to people is, "Hold on, we're doing this right." It's being implemented and then, hopefully, next year folks when folks interact with either the Secretary of State or the Department of Human Services, they go and they get the driver's license right. Their voter file would be updated, but it's not happening right now. 

Madeleine Doubek: It's not ready quite yet, so we don't want people to hold on and not vote. We want them to still go through this other process because we need everyone to participate. If we're going to make ourselves a more participatory, active democracy right? Of course, it's not a general election. It's a "primary." What does that mean exactly? 

José Sanchez-Molina: A "primary" just means that it's securing the party's nomination and then in the general, it's when we choose the winner. Some states, like California, their primary for governor, for example, is the top two people that receive the most votes. But we don't do that in Illinois. In Illinois, we do that we do a party nomination. 

Madeleine Doubek: The Democrats will pick a nominee and the Republicans will pick a nominee. And those are the people you'll hear about who have won after the election on March 20th or on that night, hopefully, of March 20th. 

José Sanchez-Molina: That's true. I do want to note that some races are sometimes treated like the big race because you might not have a Republican winning. The Democrat might secure the contest just by winning the primary. 

Madeleine Doubek: Because one political party or the other might not have a candidate running for that office? 

José Sanchez-Molina: Yeah. 

Madeleine Doubek: OK. The thing about that, of course, that a lot of people do not like is that when you actually, if you vote on Election Day when you go into the polling place, you need to tell the people running that facility, "I want a Republican ballot or I want a Democratic ballot or I want a nonpartisan ballot." You have to sort of make that declaration, right? 

José Sanchez-Molina: Yeah. 

Madeleine Doubek: That's how that works. What races are we going to be choosing in this election and how do I find out what is going to be on my particular ballot? Because everybody is a little bit different depending on where they live. Right, Danish? 

Danish Murtaza: In Illinois, we have a couple big ones. We have, of course, the Illinois governor's race. We have the attorney general's race now, this one's important because our current Attorney General Lisa Madigan will no longer be running for that office. She'll be retiring after 16 years. This is definitely a big one and one race people should definitely follow. There will be races for Illinois General Assembly, just to name a few. But to see your specific ballot, you should definitely go to your county clerk's website. We definitely linked to it on our BGA Voters Guide. Go to that website. Go to the election authority, punch in your information, and you would see your ballot. 

Madeleine Doubek: OK. You've referred to the Voters Guide a few times. Where do I find that?

Danish Murtaza: That's on our website: bettergov.org. 

Madeleine Doubek: All right, excellent. The Voters Guide has all this information about how to register if I'm not registered and that entire process. 

Danish Murtaza: Correct. 

Madeleine Doubek: But it also contains questionnaires that we sent out to all of the candidates in the two statewide contested races where there's competition. Also for some of the Cook County-wide races. Name some of those done for us Danish. 

Danish Murtaza: Cook County Board President, Cook County Assessor, Cook County Treasurer and Cook County Clerk. 

Madeleine Doubek: What do these questionnaires tell me and why should I check them out? 

Danish Murtaza: We asked each of the candidates running for a particular office a set of questions. The governor's race got a particular set of questions. The attorney general's race got to another set of questions. Now, for example, one question we asked all the governor candidates: "What initiatives would you advance to consolidate and streamline government?" One question we asked all the AG candidates: "How will you improve the Illinois Freedom of Information Act?" It was interesting to see some of the candidates dive into specific issue areas which can kind of show what they are passionate about. 

So, for example, Daniel Biss. He's a Democratic candidate for governor. He has a plan called, "Rewriting the Rules" which calls for campaign finance reform, improving ballot access and creating an independent redistricting commission. Jeanne Ives, a Republican candidate for governor, wants to focus consolidation efforts on streamlining our 852 school districts. Our topics ranged from consolidation to pensions. And it's not up to us to decide which issues are important. It's really up to the voters to decide which issues are important to them. 

Madeleine Doubek: Just to clarify, you know, when you go to vote in the primary you're not going to vote for Dan Biss or Jeanne Ives. It's going to be Dan Biss running against several other Democrats for governor. And Jeanne Ives is running in the Republican primary against our current Gov. Bruce Rauner, but that gives you an example of the different topics that are included in these questionnaires. The Better Government Association is, of course, nonpartisan. We're not about telling people for whom to vote, but we're providing this information as a public service and we focus on things that are in our mission about transparent, accountable, efficient government. Where can I get more information? 

José Sanchez-Molina: You can get more information by going to reliable mainstream media news sources. Newspapers are still available.

Madeleine Doubek: Hopefully those will be available for a long time, José.

José Sanchez-Molina: One of the websites that I like going to is the Politico Illinois Playbook. Natasha Korecki does a great job of compiling news sources, articles, whatever it be, and does a good job of doing that for us every day. Really, you just want to make sure that the source is a trusted source. I wouldn't trust somebody on Twitter who has an egg for an icon, for example. 

Madeleine Doubek: You don't really know who they are. 

José Sanchez-Molina: You know the Chicago Tribune is, you know who the Chicago Sun-Times is, you know who BGA is, ABC7, what have you. 

Madeleine Doubek: The Sun-Times and The Tribune are a couple of examples of the mainstream media organizations who have questioned candidates. What is available on their websites?

José Sanchez-Molina: They have questionnaires, they have endorsements and on their Facebook pages, as well, they have videos of forums that they've hosted. 

Madeleine Doubek: OK. That's good information and the thing that I personally have always liked about questionnaires and watching those forums or endorsement sessions that newspapers have is that you can kind of see how a candidate approaches a question. You can hear their answers unfiltered or read their answers unfiltered. You know a lot of voters over the years have learned for whatever reason to maybe be a little bit skeptical of the media. But when you're looking at a questionnaire, you get to see exactly how the question was worded and exactly how the candidate chose to answer it. Unfiltered, unedited and in their own words. What else is coming up out there that people ought to pay attention to as they're trying to become educated voters? 

José Sanchez-Molina: One of the things that I want to highlight that I think is very important is that record money is being spent on some of these elections, primarily the governor's race. Because of that, some of the advertisements, some of the images that you're going to see are going to have a political spin and that's because the candidates for governor are paying for that. I think our work as voters is to make sure that we're separating fact from spin and we have news sources that are dedicated to making sure that that happens. PolitiFact, for example, has been doing a great job of making sure that they separate fact from fiction. And then you also have, again, newspapers doing some of the great making sure that whatever the candidates are saying they're being held accountable to that. 

Madeleine Doubek: Newspapers try to do fact checking of some of these ads that are put out almost nonstop at this point in the election cycle. And you mentioned PolitiFact Illinois which is something that our friends on the investigative side of the Better Government Association produce. We are the exclusive provider of PolitiFact Illinois at the Better Government Association. That's another tool people can use to try to evaluate some of the claims that candidates make. 

José Sanchez-Molina: Absolutely. 

Madeleine Doubek: Where else do I go to get good information, reliable information? What about debates and forums are some of those coming up? 

José Sanchez-Molina: Actually, the BGA is teaming up with ABC7. We're going to be hosting a forum on March 7th at Roosevelt University where all the candidates for attorney general are going to get an opportunity to talk to the voters directly, tell them what their platform is and what they would do if they were an attorney general. This is a big race. It hasn't been opened in 16 years. I mean just to give you an idea sports fans, Ron Artest was playing for the Bulls when the race was open the last time. It's important and it's going to decide how the state works especially with President Trump. Are they going to be a friend or are they going to be an opponent? 

Madeleine Doubek: Why is the attorney general of Illinois involved with President Trump? Explain for everybody a little bit about what the attorney general does. 

José Sanchez-Molina: The way that I would summarize it is they're our attorney; they're in charge of enforcing the law. So for example, are they going to be receptive so whatever President Trump's immigration policies are? The attorney general is also responsible for enforcing things like consumer watchdog laws, FOIA, Open Meetings Act. So access to information is important. The attorney general is in charge of that making sure that that's being enforced. 

Madeleine Doubek: Access to information about what my government is doing or not doing or what officials are talking about 

José Sanchez-Molina: Yeah. So let's say that you want to know what they're emailing about or how a big vote happened or when they're having meetings you just want minutes to those meetings so that you're up to date. The attorney general is making sure that that state agency or government agency is complying with the information that you're requesting. 

Madeleine Doubek: So that's a pretty important thing. 

José Sanchez-Molina: It's huge. 

Madeleine Doubek: Allowing you to watch your government. 

José Sanchez-Molina: It's how a lot of our newspapers get their information. It's how the investigators from the Better Government Association get information. 

Madeleine Doubek: All right. That is an important office and same thing with Governor. Obviously, that's the top office in the state of Illinois. We currently have Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and obviously a Democratic majority in the Illinois Senate in the Illinois House and they've clashed a bit over the last couple of years. We're going to be voting and kind of setting the stage for that matchup over the summer and into the fall for November to determine who the next governor is and whether we have a Democrat working with a Democratic majority or whether things shift in those two legislative bodies because people will be voting in some of those races. too depending on where they live and whether there's competition. A lot of important stuff out there.

Each voter might also face some ballot questions also known as "referenda." In Cook County, there's an advisory question about legalizing marijuana that will be on the ballot. And that may change from county to county or place to place what sorts of questions you see. Of course, there'll be all kinds of judges on the ballot that we all always tend to complain that we don't know enough about those people. People could turn to bar associations for some guidance on some of those races and a lot of the newspapers oftentimes will print a collection of the ratings that the bar associations do for candidates for judge. 

So Danish, let's go back to the BGA's candidate questionnaire. It's a pretty neat tool in that it allows you to see as many candidates as you want or as few candidates as you want. What are what are the other neat features that it allows you to do? 

Danish Murtaza: To start off, I would be remiss to not to give a small shout out to our phenomenal web and graphics editor, Patrick judge, who built out this application. This is the first time BGA has had this tool. We've had questionnaires in the past, but this tool in particular it's our first go at it and it's a phenomenal tool. So, how it works: You pick a race Governor, Attorney General, Cook County Board President, for example, and from there you see a list of candidates for governor, attorney general etc. etc. and you can choose to either see one candidate's responses or you could do a side by side between one two or three or you could see all of the candidates if you want the whole picture. So it really gives you a broad overview of what the candidates are talking about, where they stand on various issues. In addition, you have the races category in our voters guide but you also have an F.A.Q. section which lays out the process on how to vote and where to vote and all that information. 

Madeleine Doubek: OK. José you were talking to folks at ABC7 about this over the weekend and one of the things that they noted was that you can get through this tool pretty quickly because we didn't overdo it on the questions. 

José Sanchez-Molina: We didn't. We made sure that the questions were short, to the point and informative for the voter. 

Madeleine Doubek: You can read them and compare the different candidates for Governor pretty quickly. 

José Sanchez-Molina: Yeah absolutely. I'll take you on. 

Madeleine Doubek: It's not going to be a week-long investment of your time or a month-long investment of your time. But some pretty good information. 

José Sanchez-Molina: Absolutely. And if there's only one race that you care about, you're able to separate that race away from the others. 

Madeleine Doubek: OK. We should note Danish that not every candidate answered our repeated requests to participate. Right? 

Danish Murtaza: Right. Correct. We made sure to give candidates a good deal of time to respond. We sent out our questionnaires the first week of January and we gave the candidates a good month and a half to respond. We didn't hear back from candidates such as Tio Hardiman, Robert Marshall the two gubernatorial candidates. And we didn't get one back from Karen Yarbrough a candidate for Cook County clerk. But in the case of the assessors race, Joe Berrios refused to respond to our questionnaire. 

Madeleine Doubek: He's the current Cook County Assessor? 

Danish Murtaza: Correct. And in that race we only had responses from Fritz Kaegi and Andrea Raila. 

Madeleine Doubek: Well I think that about wraps it up for everything people need to know that we can help out with for this primary election 2018. Again, if you're looking for good, non-partisan, fact-based, unedited, unfiltered information you want to be sure to go to our website, bettergov.org and check out the candidate questionnaires and voter F.A.Q. Or go to some good reliable mainstream media organizations like the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Herald. Also especially pay attention to any forums or videos of endorsement interviews or their questionnaires and answers that they may have published. In addition, there are some debates coming up for the candidates for governor. The BGA and ABC7 are hosting one with all the candidates for attorney general from 6 to 8 p.m. on March 7th and we'll be live streaming that on Facebook and on our websites both ABC7chicago.com and bettergov.org. Univision will be live streaming that forum in Spanish. So lots of tools out there available for voters. Be sure to take advantage of them and be a part of the process to determine who represents us and help us get the better government we deserve. Danish and José, thanks for joining us on this edition of the Ready Set Gov

José Sanchez-Molina: Thank you. 

Danish Murtaza: Thanks for having me.