Teaching the 2016 Election: Youth Participation in Elections, Part I

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

Over the past two months, we’ve tried to set the table for teaching the 2016 Election, beginning with the high-profile presidential contest. We kicked off with the party conventions, discussed the third party alternatives, and delved into the vice presidential selection process. Then, we parsed polling data, analyzed media coverage of the election process, shined a spotlight on money in politics, and untangled the Electoral College.

We then worked our way down the ballot, beginning with the fierce battle for party control of the U.S. Senate and a more politically insulated House of Representatives. Specific to Illinois, we did a post mortem on the failed effort to reform legislative redistricting, featured the special election for Comptroller, and weighed the prospect of ending the Springfield Stalemate through General Assembly races. On Monday, and throughout the series, we have provided educators with tools to teach the content, in this case the first of three presidential debates.

In the remaining seven weeks of the campaign, we’ll continued to tackle timely topics, but first want to frame the 2016 Election from the perspective of youth participation over the course of three consecutive posts.

The late Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka claimed that young people “…don’t vote because very often they’re lazy, and they’re too busy playing with their little machines… They’re just too in tune with texting and not in tune with what’s going on around them.”

We plan to unpack and challenge these claims because they are misconceptions that lie at the heart of a problem we are desperately trying to unpack as civic educators: deep concerns about youth disengagement from the political process and elections in particular.

In a survey on likely non-voters ages 18-29 leading up to the 2012 Election, 43% said it didn’t matter who won because Washington is broken. More than three-in-ten (31%) felt that none of the candidates represented their views, and a quarter (25%) saw little difference between the two parties.

While one may be reluctant to call themselves lazy, this response didn’t rise to the fore. In fact, specific to Illinois, we have a trust issue between citizens and our government at every level, but it’s particularly distorted at the state level among Millennials. Recall that in order to participate in our democracy we must believe that we can make a difference and that government and institutions will be responsive to us.

The good news is that exposure to proven civic learning practices like those embedded in Illinois’ new course requirement can build young peoples’ confidence in their ability to affect positive change. This is indeed the perennial task at hand.

Future posts will examine youth voting in recent elections and its potential impact in 2016 through an Illinois-centric lens, along with the intersection of young people “playing with their little machines” and political life.

Teaching the 2016 Election: Presidential Debates of Paramount Importance in Too-Close-To-Call Contest

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar and Barb Laimins, Teacher Mentor Liaison

We return to the presidential race in today’s post, setting the stage for tonight’s prime time debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.

Fifty-six years ago today John F. Kennedy squared off with Richard Nixon right here in Chicago for the first televised presidential debate in history. Kennedy’s triumph paved the way for the narrowest of victories on Election Night, and after a brief interlude, the two major party nominees have debated every four years since 1976.

Like 1960, the 2016 presidential election is too-close-to-call at this moment. It has tightened significantly since Clinton enjoyed a post-convention bounce, as she clings to a narrow lead in an average of recent polls, many of them within the margin-of-error.

A strong debate performance by either candidate (or a poor one) could shift the race by three or four points, allowing Clinton to open a more comfortable lead, or for Trump to inch ahead himself.

The candidates certainly present a contrast in style and substance, and a Super Bowl-size television audience will decide if either or both pass the commander-in-chief test.

Absent from the stage are Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, nominees of the Libertarian and Green Parties, respectively. Johnson came closest to qualifying, but failed to meet the 15% threshold set by the Commission on Presidential Debates. Unfortunately for both third party candidates, voters will see the bi-polar choice starkly on tonight’s stage and may ultimately settle for the “lesser of two evils.”

With the primaries, veepstakes, and nominating conventions in our rear view mirrors, the three presidential debates (and one vice presidential debate) stand as the remaining flashpoints in Election 2016, and perhaps the ultimate teachable moments. A few resource recommendations are certainly in order.
Now grab that popcorn (and bingo card) and enjoy tonight’s main event!

Teaching the 2016 Election: Competition Lacking in Illinois General Assembly Contests

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

Beyond the statewide race for Comptroller, 158 of the 177 Illinois General Assembly seats are in play this November. This includes all 118 House seats and two-thirds of the Senate (39). Senators enjoy four-year terms and are staggered into three different groups, where all face voters in the election after the decennial redistricting process. House terms are two years (see Article IV, Section 2 of the Illinois Constitution).

However, only 41% of these races field candidates of the two major parties, meaning that 98 of the contests were decided in the March primary, if not on the day candidate petitions were filed.

According to analysis from the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (ICPR), 50 House seats and 12 Senate seats remain contested. On top of the gerrymandered districts drawn after the 2010 census, this dearth of competition locks in a Democratic majority in both chambers for at least another two years.

Democrats currently hold a supermajority in the House and Senate, accounting for 60% plus of the seats, and if their caucuses stick together, enough votes to override a gubernatorial veto. This margin is at the bare minimum in the House (71 votes and 71 Democratic representatives), but more comfortable in the Senate (36 votes and 40 Democratic Senators; see Article IV, Section 9 of the Illinois Constitution).

House Speaker Michael Madigan has struggled to hold his entire caucus together in votes to override Governor Rauner’s vetoes, thus the perpetual stalemate. But he is hoping to pad his margins this fall with the nuclear Trump atop the Republican ticket.

On the other side of the ledger, Governor Rauner has invested more than $20 million of his own resources in competitive legislative contests. He is seeking to further undermine Madigan’s Democratic majority, potentially providing an opening for parts of his “Turnaround Agenda” to advance before his own re-election battle in 2018.

Where you live and/ or teach determines whether or not the General Assembly races are competitive. Half of the 62 contested races are in Chicago’s suburbs, while 6 are in the city (only one is truly competitive), 14 in Central Illinois, and 10 in Southern Illinois.

ICPR’s Illinois Sunshine database lists them all and provides campaign finance comparisons. Note than most of these contests are one-sided on the financial ledger, heavily favoring the incumbent of either party. We wrote earlier about money in politics, but this provides yet another data point proving that cash in hand may not guarantee victory, but a lack of it spells defeat.

Taken together, it’s difficult to see the Springfield Stalemate stymied this election cycle. Sadly, we may indeed be doomed to at least two more years of the dysfunctional status quo.

Teaching the 2016 Election: A Proxy Battle for Illinois Comptroller

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

In addition to the Tier One Senate race in Illinois, we also have a competitive statewide contest for Comptroller. Without doubt, many Illinois residents have no clue what this constitutional officer does, and some may be surprised that it’s on the ballot in a presidential election year. This post seeks to clarify matters, and we begin by turning to the Illinois Constitution.

Per Article V, Section 2, constitutional officers in Illinois are elected every four years during midterm cycles. However, the incumbent, Judy Baar Topinka, died shortly after being re-elected in 2014. Her longtime assistant Nancy Kimme served in the interim period prior to Governor Rauner’s inauguration, and he proceeded to appoint Leslie Munger to fill the vacancy until a special election could be scheduled (Article V, Section 7).

Munger is a former business executive who lost a Lake County state representative race in 2014. She is seeking to serve the balance of the four-year term, and is opposed by Chicago Clerk Susana Mendoza, a Chicago Democrat with a prior decade-long stint in the Illinois General Assembly. Just as Munger is tied to Rauner, Mendoza is close to House Speaker Michael Madigan, so this race is seen by many as a proxy war between the lead combatants in the so-called “Springfield Stalemate.”

Unlike most states, the duties of Comptroller and Treasurer are divided. While the former “…maintain(s) the State’s central fiscal accounts, and order(s) payments into and out of the funds held by the Treasurer” (Article V, Section 17), the latter is “…responsible for the safekeeping of monies and securities deposited with him (or her), and for their disbursement upon order of the Comptroller” (Article V, Section 18).

Given that Illinois is in its second year without a full budget, and in the midst of its first temporary budget (expires January 1; K-12 education excepted which has a 12 month budget), Munger has been quite visible in demanding a resolution to the Stalemate and engaging in creative accounting in deciding how to disburse limited dollars to a plethora of potential recipients, Illinois lawmakers included. Also at issue is the staggering sum of unpaid bills currently projected to reach a record $14 billion by next summer.

The race has mostly centered on the pair’s Rauner-Madigan ties, each one individually claiming independence from these increasingly unpopular figures. Yet more than $1.7 million has already been raised by the two candidates, the bulk of it by Mendoza ($1.39 million) from labor union sources that fuel the Illinois Democratic Party more generally. Munger boasts her own independent wealth and may leverage it in the closing weeks of the campaign, and if other Republican races provide any clues, look for Governor Rauner to come to the rescue, too.

In the end, this is a presidential election year, and Illinois is a dark hue of blue, so Mendoza is the prohibitive favorite. But don’t count out Munger just yet as Rauner and the Republicans seek parity as a means of enacting their “Turnaround Agenda” in the Land of Lincoln.

Teaching the 2016 Election: A Constitution Day Primer

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

We interrupt our Teaching the 2016 Election series to celebrate Constitution Day, September 17. Public schools and universities and even federal agencies are legally obligated to provide programming around the Constitution on this day, recognized on Friday this year as it falls on a weekend.

As a classroom teacher, I remember being offended that Congress thought the Constitution could be packaged into a single day, as every day was Constitution Day for me and my students. A decade later, I’m encouraged by the annual celebration across grades, classrooms, and campuses, and that so many of you weave the Constitution into your daily doings.

There is certainly no shortage of Constitution Day resources as every civic education organization under the sun seizes its fifteen minutes of fame, so I thought it might be helpful to make a few constitutional connections to the 2016 Election.

Article I establishes our legislative branch and calls for bi-annual elections where every member of the House of Representatives and one-third of Senators face voters. Specific to this election, where party control of the Senate is very much in question, the Senate’s authority to ratify treaties and confirm Supreme Court appointments rise to the fore.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Treaty is opposed by both Clinton and Trump, but favored by President Obama and many Republicans. Moreover, the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court looms over this election given Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s contention that the winner should pick Justice Antonin Scalia’s replacement.

The Electoral College is specified in Article II, a subject we’ve already addressed at length, but amendments dealing with the vice presidential selection (12th) and presidential succession (25th) come to the fore given the advanced age of our current candidates and lingering health concerns. It’s also interesting to contemplate whether President Obama would be re-elected if not for term limits (22nd Amendment).

The Article III implications of this election extend once more to the Supreme Court vacancy and potential paralysis on important decisions where the Justices split 4-4. A deadlocked Court then defers to lower court rulings, the latter applying only to states within their jurisdiction.

The 2016 Election has consequences for many of our civil liberties and constitutional amendments. More specifically the 14th Amendment has been a campaign issue with Donald Trump’s questioning of the wisdom of the birthright citizenship it guarantees.

We’ll return next week with a closer look at state elections in Illinois, but wish you a Happy Constitution Day as we celebrate the #CivicsIsBack campaign.

Teaching the 2016 Election: How to Make Legislative Redistricting Real for Students

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar and Barb Laimins, Teacher Mentor Liaison

Last week, we provided a primer on the state of redistricting reform in Illinois. While the status quo will probably prevail for at least two more years, the topic is an important one to incorporate into classroom instruction. This post compiles resources and lesson plans that make this “broccoli” (a.k.a. redistricting) more than palatable.

Starting close to home, here’s a catchy slide show from the Independent Maps coalition that tells you “Everything You Need to Know About Redistricting.”

Our friends at the Citizen Advocacy Center in Elmhurst provide a range of activities and lecture notes on redistricting reform vocabulary and examples of gerrymandering.

And as pennant fever grips the friendly confines of Wrigley Field, the Mikva Challenge framed this redistricting lesson through Chicago’s competing baseball allegiances, the Cubs and White Sox. While it’s already “wait till next year” for the South Siders, they’re credible contenders when it comes to map making.

For further background on legislative redistricting, teachers should access this Fair Vote site that features a section on Illinois, including court cases and challenges to the current system.

Legislative redistricitng is of course a national phenomenon as old as the republic. PBS and CSPAN, respectively, view redistricitng through the lens of Congress, a body that would not have been affected by Illinois’ reform efforts.

Drawing district lines is ripe for classroom simulations, and the WXXI Public Broadcasting Council assigns students an imaginary state and roles advocating for their respective maps.

Learning Law and Democracy in Minnesota has students assume partisan roles in this lesson plan, engaging in gerrymandering as they apply redistricting to local, county, or state boundaries and also consider the demographic components of the two major political parties.

For advanced students, the Public Mapping Project allows citizens to draw their own maps and submit them to state legislatures or commissions for consideration. Rep. Mike Fortner (R-West Chicago) has proposed this approach as a constitutional means of achieving reform in Illinois.

Last but definitely not least is RedistrictingGame.org, the go-to site for enabling students to solve the redistricting riddle.

Ready… set… REDISTRICT!

Teaching the 2016 Election: A Called Third Strike for Redistricting Reform in Illinois

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

In working our way down the proverbial ballot for the election two months from tomorrow, it was my intention to conclude with a redistricting reform initiative likely to appear at the bottom of it. However, the Illinois Supreme Court struck down the proposed amendment on constitutional grounds, sending supporters back to the drawing board.

A little history is in order, but first an acknowledgement that the McCormick Foundation has supported these reform efforts financially, and our Board Chairman Dennis Fitzsimmons led the 2016 Independent Maps coalition.

A handful of states have taken the responsibility of drawing legislative districts from their legislators and placed it in the hands of independent commissions. Illinois has attempted to join these ranks three times, each effort ending in failure and frustration.

In 2010, supporters failed to gather the requisite number of signatures, equivalent to 8% of the votes cast for gubernatorial candidates in the preceding election (see Illinois Constitution, Article XIV, Section 3).

Four years later, proponents reached the nominal signature threshold, but failed to have enough of them validated by the State Board of Elections. Moreover, a district court judge ruled the amendment’s language went beyond the bounds of the Illinois Constitution, which restricts citizen initiatives to structural and procedural matters relating to the legislature. The amendment forbade redistricting commission members from running for the Illinois General Assembly for ten years.

Fast forward to 2016, the signature bar was cleared with distance to spare. Problems arose when the inevitable legal challenge surfaced, once more claiming that the proposed amendment went beyond constitutional parameters, this time involving the Inspector General and Supreme Court in determining the composition of the redistricting commission. Both the Cook County and Illinois Supreme Court concurred, effectively ending the third chapter of what may become a decade-long push for redistricting reform.

The Independent Maps coalition has filed an appeal for reconsideration, along with further guidance on how future efforts might effectively thread the needle. As of this writing, the Supreme Court has not responded, but we are left as educators with another teachable moment.

We'll return on Monday with further resources to teach legislative redistricting.

Teaching the 2016 Election: A Well-Insulated House of Representatives

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

In contrast to the U.S. Senate, control of the House of Representatives is unlikely to change hands in November. Thanks to a highly successful 2014 midterm election, Republicans hold a decisive 247-186 majority with two vacant seats formerly held by Democrats.

The GOP has benefited from low turnout non-presidential election cycles and their more conservative-learning electorate. This proved especially true in 2010 when Republican gains at the state level allowed legislatures to redraw congressional districts favorable to their own party in a majority of states. By “packing” and “cracking” city-dwelling Democratic voters into solid blue or Republican-leaning districts, respectively, the GOP insulated its House majority during higher-turnout presidential years like 2012.

Four years ago, Democratic House candidates won 1.4 million more votes than their Republican counterparts, yet it was the latter that preserved its majority with minimal losses. Due in part to Donald Trump’s struggles atop of the Republican ticket, paired with dismal congressional approval ratings, registered voters currently favor Democratic congressional candidates by a five-point margin.

On the surface, this decisive lead would seemingly jeopardize continued Republican rule, but according to the Cook Political Report, Republicans enter the fall with an estimated 202 safe seats compared to 177 for Democrats. This leaves the GOP only 16 seats short of the necessary 218 majority. Thirteen other seats are projected as likely Republican, and eleven more lean Republican. If you’re counting with me, this adds up to 226 and doesn’t even include any of the nineteen toss-up races.

Democrats thus need to hold their 177 safe seats, win the thirteen seats projected as likely or lean Democrat, take the nineteen toss-ups, and still win at least nine of the eleven seats that lean Republican. An uphill climb for certain.

Of Illinois’ eighteen congressional districts, only two are considered competitive. Congressman Mike Bost from Murphrysboro in Southern Illinois (12th Congressional District) is deemed likely to hold his seat, while Representive Bob Dold from Chicago’s north suburbs is fighting for his political life in a rematch with his three-time opponent Brad Schneider. The seat has bounced back-and-forth between the two candidates since 2010 and may do so again given the decisive Democratic lean of Illinois in presidential cycles.