Editor’s note: Leading up to the May 3 grand opening of Harris’ new home at the Keller Center, our #PolicyForward series spotlights how the Harris School of Public Policy is driving impact for the next generation. In addition to stories from faculty, students, and alumni, we reached out to other experts in the field to share their perspective on strengthening democracy and our institutions.

Pat Quinn served as Governor of Illinois from 2009 to 2015.

How can we strengthen our democracy?

The best way to strengthen democracy is to strengthen the voters. For over a century, the best method to allow voters to speak at the ballot box has been the power of initiative and referendum. One of the challenges for this generation is to expand the initiative process to municipalities, counties, townships, school districts, and statewide, especially in Illinois.

Initiative allows voters to vote on issues as well as candidates and increases turnout at elections, because people like that they themselves become the lawmakers on important issues like affordable housing, economic development, consumer protection, environmental health, tax reform, public safety, veteran assistance, or tougher political ethics standards. 

In the initiative process, the voters have to gather a certain number of signatures to place the question on the ballot. The very process of collecting signatures is healthy for our democracy. It encourages voters to band together for causes they believe in. In a democracy, it's all about addition, not subtraction.

As Governor of Illinois, I signed bills into law that allowed online and same-day voter registration, and I enacted stronger campaign finance reform measures. But still there's much more work to be done, including enacting small-donor campaign finance reform in Illinois and across the nation, as has been passed in New York City and other municipalities across the United States.

A strong democracy means "one person, one vote" – not "one dollar, one vote." Financing campaigns with small-dollar contributions from lots of people is a fundamental, necessary reform for our democracy in the 21st century. 

Young people interested in making an impact for the next generation should circulate petitions for referendum on important issues and run for office if they wish to get into the arena. In the Land of Lincoln, it's time we let the will of the people be the law of the land.

About Pat Quinn

Pat Quinn served as the 41st Governor of Illinois from January 29, 2009 to January 12, 2015. When Gov. Quinn took the oath of office, Illinois was in the midst of a triple crisis of government corruption at the highest level, budget instability, and economic collapse caused by the deepest recession since the Great Depression. For more information about Gov. Quinn's career in public service, please visit GovernorQuinnPortrait.org and view his full biography here.