Most years, Illinois holds its nominating primaries on the third Tuesday in March, around St. Patrick’s Day, which may be why Cook County has judges named Mary Margaret Brosnahan and James Patrick Murphy. This year, though, the primary is June 28. Why? Because, in a chain reaction dating back to 2020, COVID delayed the census, which delayed redistricting, which delayed candidates knowing where they would be running and circulating petitions.
As a result, petition circulating — which normally takes place in the fall — was pushed back to the winter. That was a big pain, said Thomas Nowinski, who is running for Cook County Circuit judge, a small enough office that he had to collect the signatures himself.
“Typically, it’s in September and October, so you have farmers’ markets, football games, Oktoberfest,” Nowinski said. “This time, I tried to go to ‘L’ stations and Metra stations, but ridership was down because of COVID. I asked my friends and family to sign for me.”
“If it was easy, everyone would do it.”
On the other hand, Nowinski was campaigning on the sidewalk outside Jarvis Square Tavern in Rogers Park, at the 49th Ward’s Meet the Judges event. It was a mild Saturday afternoon, and a dozen aspiring judges were buttonholing neighbors attracted to the bar by free tavern-style pizza, free drinks, and warm weather. Politicians can’t chat with voters outdoors in March, not in Chicago.
Illinois’s March primary was established in 1970 — supposedly because the Chicago machine wanted to make life difficult for independent candidates by forcing them to campaign throughout the winter. (The first March primary fell on St. Patrick’s Day, which angered many voters, because a law required taverns and liquor stores to close on Election Day. The law was quickly repealed.) In 2008, the primary was temporarily pushed to February, so Illinois could support favorite son Barack Obama on Super Tuesday.
Illinois chooses its candidates earlier than any other state. That means we have a longer general election season — and more political ads — than any other state. Our uniquely early primary contributes to the feeling that politics never ends in Chicago.
Ann Lousin, a University of Illinois Chicago law professor who helped draft the state’s 1970 constitution, and thus remembers when we adopted the March primary, thinks June is a step in the right direction. She’d like to see the primary held even later, though.
“I have argued for years that it should be in September,” Lousin said. “You want a relatively short time between the primary and the general election.”
A March primary, Lousin, means losing and retiring candidates will be lame ducks for nine-and-a-half months — as long as it takes to gestate a baby.
“Government can’t function,” she said. “They’re cleaning out their desks and looking for new jobs. They aren’t going to have anything to offer. ‘I’m going to be out of here next year. Why should I do anything for you?’”
(After Sen. Alan Dixon lost the March 1992 Democratic primary to Carol Moseley Braun, he still had to return to Washington to complete his term. “I can tell you this was not the most fun period in my long career of public service,” he wrote in his autobiography, The Gentleman from Illinois. “I could sense the discomfort of my colleague as I still went about my business in committees and on the Senate floor, but I did my job.”)
Delaware, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Massachusetts all hold their primaries in September, and their state governments function better than Illinois’s. Another advantage of a September primary: both petition circulating and campaigning would take place during Chicago’s window of warm weather.
But Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield, doesn’t see the change happening. He expects Illinois to return to its traditional primary schedule after this year.
“My guess is that it is a one-off, primarily because of the legislative calendar,” Redfield wrote in an e-mail. “Having to have a supermajority to pass a budget after May 30 and having the fiscal year start July 1 means that you have to work the timing so you can either do the primary and then do the budget or do the budget and then do the primary. Politically, doing the primary first allows you to put off votes that might give you trouble in the primary. A September primary would work better in terms of ensuring that the budget got done and that you still had enough time to campaign before the primary. But that change would require everyone — candidates and contributors — to deal with a new dynamic and would shorten the general election campaign period. Everyone is familiar with the dynamic of a March primary followed by a budget-focused legislative session and then plenty of time to campaign for the general. Politicians and political actors hate uncertainty. Giving up the status quo is always hard for them.”
It’s possible that Illinois will end up voting even earlier than March after this year. The Democratic Party of Illinois has applied to make us an “early voting” state in presidential primaries, on the grounds that we’re more typically American than white, rural Iowa, which has held the nation’s first caucus since 1972.
“Illinois represents a true test of what presidential candidates will face across the nation and as an early primary state, Illinois can help strengthen the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates in the primary and the general election,” state party chair Robin Kelly wrote to the Democratic National Committee. “No state matches America’s demographics like Illinois.”
If the party’s application is successful, the partisan primary would be pushed back to February to coincide with the presidential primary. Unlike most states, many of which have better-functioning governments, Illinois holds both at the same time.
At least the primary would never again fall on St. Patrick’s Day. In February 2008, the primary fell on Paczki Day. That wouldn’t be as good for judicial candidates with Irish names — but it could be good for Thomas Nowinski.