In Cook County, as in many other local governments in Illinois, elected positions that are vacated between elections are decided not by voters, but by political insiders.
This process is being played out again this week for the vacant seat of commissioner of Cook County’s 2nd District.
Whether it will be a fair and transparent process remains to be seen, but what is already certain is that Cook County voters will not have any say.
A vacated seat
On June 19, Cook County Commissioner Robert Steele passed away due to health complications. Steele represented Cook County’s 2nd District, which encompasses much of the Loop and the West and South Sides. In 2006, Steele himself was appointed to the seat and won election after that.
This week, Steele’s seat is being filled through an appointment by a “weighted vote” process.
Cook County government
Cook County contains 128 municipalities in its region, the most well known being the City of Chicago. The City of Chicago and the suburban municipalities account for approximately 85 percent of the county’s 946 square miles; unincorporated areas make up the remaining 15 percent. Cook County is governed by the Cook County Board of Commissioners.
County commissioners are elected to four-year terms and are paid annual salaries of $85,000 plus benefits for the part-time positions. Each commissioner’s office spends about $350,000 per year, mostly on staff salaries. There are 17 Cook County commissioners (13 Democrats and four Republicans), each with separate districts. Each district comprises approximately 300,000 people. Cook County’s 2017 fiscal year budget totaled $4.4 billion, with a $475.7 million capital budget to fund “critical investments in the county’s infrastructure and equipment.”
Appointing a commissioner
While the practice of appointing a commissioner, as well as setting the Cook County district boundaries, has undergone many changes over the past 20 years, county voters still hold little influence in the process.
Prior to 1970, a commissioner’s seat that fell vacant mid term would be chosen by the remaining county commissioners (per state statute 55 ILCS 5/County). Under this system, the County Board of Commissioners was composed of 10 from the city of Chicago (typically all Democrats) and seven from the suburbs (typically all Republicans).
That all changed in 1970 when the new State Constitution gave Cook County home-rule powers; then, in the 1990s, Cook County established single-member districts. Cook County now has 17 single-member districts and fills a vacant commissioner seat by a vote of the ward committeemen from the political party of the vacancy (per ordinance 15-0633 Section 2-72).
The weighted vote
Commissioner Steele’s seat will be appointed by weighted vote, according to the by-laws of the Cook County Democratic Party (Article III Sec 4/J).
A committee chair, usually the committeeman who had the largest vote returns in the past election, will host a selection committee to fill the vacant seat. For Commissioner Steele’s seat, Alderman Michael Scott Jr. (24th Ward) is the chair.
Alderman Scott will lead a 19-person selection committee composed of the 19 Democratic committeemen of the wards represented in the 2nd District. The committeemen included in Commissioner Steele’s seat selection committee include:
|Ward 1||Alderman Proco Joe Moreno|
|Ward 2||Committeeman Tim Egan|
|Ward 3||Alderman Pat Dowell|
|Ward 4||Committeeman Toni Preckwinkle|
|Ward 6||Alderman Roderick Sawyer|
|Ward 11||Committeeman John Daley|
|Ward 15||Alderman Raymond Lopez|
|Ward 16||Committeemen Stephanie Coleman|
|Ward 17||Alderman David Moore|
|Ward 18||Alderman Derrick Curtis|
|Ward 20||Committeeman Kevin Bailey|
|Ward 22||Committeeman Michael Rodriguez|
|Ward 24||Alderman Michael Scott Jr.|
|Ward 25||Alderman Daniel Solis|
|Ward 27||Alderman Walter Burnett Jr.|
|Ward 28||Alderman Jason Ervin|
|Ward 29||Alderman Chris Taliaferro|
|Ward 38||Alderman Nick Sposato|
|Ward 42||Alderman Brendan Reilly|
The replacement for Commissioner Steele’s seat (or any vacant Cook County commissioner seat) will be decided by a weighted vote, which means that not all committeemen will have an equal vote.
The committee’s votes are weighted based on the number of votes cast in each ward for Robert Steele in 2014 during the general election, as calculated by the Chicago Board of Elections. There were a total of 57,091 votes cast in 2014 for Robert Steele. Each committeeman’s vote will be weighted based on the number of votes Robert Steele received in that ward divided by the total votes cast for Robert Steele.
A successful appointment must acquire at least 50% plus 1 vote from the selection committee in order to be appointed to the seat.
The top five weighted votes will come from Alderman Michael Scott Jr. (Ward 24—15.68%), Alderman Pat Dowell (Ward 3—11.82%), Committeeman Stephanie Coleman (Ward 16—9.24%), Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. (Ward 27—8%) and Alderman David Moore (Ward 17—7.73%).
The selection meeting will be held on Thursday, July 13, from 9 a.m. to noon at The Lofts on Arthington (located at 3301 W Arthington). Applications will be accepted by the 2nd District Selection Committee until then via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Applicants must include their resumes, a copy of their voter registration card and their voter history (obtainable at the Chicago Board of Elections) and letters of recommendation. Each applicant will be given time to address the committee, and the public is welcome to attend.
A better system needed
Political appointees holding elected positions is an undemocratic system by design—and suffers from myriad problems.
Appointing vacant seats instead of holding special elections reduces the independence of the appointee, whose loyalties will inherently fall to the person or committee who hired him or her, rather than to the residents he or she will serve. Additionally, the appointee of the 2nd District seat will inherit a slight incumbent advantage, in preparation for the upcoming primary election to be held March 20, 2018.
The top-down process of appointments usually rewards political insiders and promotes nepotism and political cronyism while taking away voters’ rights to truly decide who best can represent their needs.
All across Illinois, the appointment system needs to be re-evaluated and replaced with special elections to put voters back in power. The cost of special elections is typically the biggest argument against the democratic process, but no Illinois voter can be deprived of his or her right to select their representatives in a fair and democratic manner—especially for relatively minimal cost.
In a recent press release, Alderman Michael Scott Jr. said, “I am looking forward to an open and fair process.” Nice words, but if Alderman Scott and his colleagues truly want an “open and fair process” they should be pushing for a better system altogether.