Members of the Evanston Voter Initiative reflect on the campaign for direct democracy

In 2019, residents of Evanston launched the Evanston Voter Initiative, a grassroots effort to give voters a direct voice in local politics.

While the initial push for a voter initiative process was canceled in early 2020, community members hope to put it back on the ballot in April. A voter initiative process would give residents the ability to introduce questions directly on the ballot, without the city council voting first.

Initiatives in states like Washington and California have given citizens the ability to raise the minimum wage. Other initiatives could grant universal childcare or a universal basic income, said Allison Harned, one of the initiative’s founders.

If the process of obtaining the right of initiative proved difficult, obtaining an initiative itself on the ballot is just as difficult. To create an initiative, community members must submit a preliminary report of their petition to a municipal official for review. Once the initiative has been approved, the petitioner must collect signatures. The petition can be placed on the ballot after a certain signature threshold, which varies by population size and local government language regarding initiatives, is reached.

Some community members are seeking to get a voter initiative process on the ballot in April. Harned said the idea for a campaign first came up in 2018 Harley Clarke Mansion Debate. She said a poll with 80% of residents voting to save the house from demolition prompted the city council to vote against demolition.

After that vote, Harned said former Gov. Pat Quinn contacted then-City Clerk Devon Reid to create a voter initiative campaign in Evanston.

“We wanted this to exist because we felt like the city council wasn’t listening to us,” Harned said. “We wanted to have a way for people to have proof that people in the city have a certain opinion on a subject.”

More than 3,000 Evanston residents signed a petition from June to December 2019 to institute a voter initiative process. But Harned said some council members, including former mayor Steve Hagerty and former Ald. Ann Rainey (8th), both later quashed the proposal at an Electoral Council meeting.

Just a week after submitting the petition to the city, Harned said the campaign received a notice of objection from the city government, which denied the legitimacy of the petition. Harned said the Evanston Voter Initiative team decided to take the matter to court after Rainey and Hagerty voted to quash the proposal.

“There was an attorney the city hired and the decision seemed to have been pre-arranged by council members,” Harned said.

Harned said the campaign was ultimately called off when it reached the appeals court. The court ruled that citizens could not put an initiative proposal on the ballot and instead had to ask the city council to propose and approve the initiative proposal before it could appear on the ballot. vote.

Quinn contributed to several campaign initiatives across Illinois after his tenure as governor. He said a life in politics taught him the importance of giving people a voice.

“People as a whole often come up with creative ideas,” Quinn said. “A big part of the initiative process is not just getting something on the ballot and voting on it, but a petition campaign or idea often catches the attention of elected officials.”

Quinn is working with Harned to get a voter initiative process on the ballot and said he remains hopeful the community will organize in favor of the initiative.

Mayor Daniel Biss said community members have the power to influence city council at an event last November hosted by the Community Alliance for Better Government. He added that Evanston residents could use this power to push for an initiative process.

“Resident groups and interested residents of Evanston are extremely effective in getting the attention of elected officials,” Biss said.

Despite what Quinn called “bureaucracy that hampers progress,” he said he believes an electoral initiative process is good for democracy as a whole.

“It’s the only way to give vitality to our democracy,” Quinn said. “Allowing voters to petition ideas and vote on them is very healthy for democracy.”

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Twitter: @KatherineMcD33

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