Last month, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek headline for my blog: “Poll conducted for IEA finds about 10 percent of Illinoisans are wackos.”
The Normington-Petts and Next Generation Strategies poll of 1,000 Illinoisans conducted in January found that eleven percent strongly favor “the fighting, yelling, or other contention at school board meetings that has been happening around the country.” Ten percent strongly opposed “Teaching Illinois high school students about slavery in the United States and its impacts.” Another 14 percent strongly opposed “Teaching Illinois high school students about racism and its impact in the United States.” And eleven percent strongly favored “Banning books from Illinois school libraries.”
But we didn’t need a scientific survey to know that “wackos” are proliferating.
Last year, then-Representative Deb Conroy (D-Villa Park) came under attack after false and ridiculous claims were made that she sponsored a bill to forcibly round people up and lock them in internment camps for refusing to take a vaccine. The attack was patently absurd on its face, but it was fanned by some Republican legislators and even so-called “moderates” like Republican DuPage County Board Chair candidate Greg Hart, who lost to Conroy last November. The result was, I wrote last year, “profanity-laden, disgusting, misogynistic messages from hateful and violent-sounding people.” It got so bad that Conroy closed her district office for a time, and a man was eventually charged with two felonies for making threats against her. Conroy stood firm, but the bill as introduced died on the vine and more than 21,000 electronic witness slips were filed in opposition.
Then, the other day, Representative Katie Stuart (D-Edwardsville) announced that she had canceled a constituent meet-and-greet over threats about her own bill.
House Bill 1286 merely sets state guidelines for commercial property-owners who want to construct multiple-occupancy, all-gender restrooms. The Illinois Retail Merchants Association, the American Institute of Architects-Illinois, the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, the Illinois Public Health Association, Equality Illinois, Illinois NOW and large numbers of other reputable groups filed electronic witness slips in support.
But the same usual suspects fanned the flames against Representative Stuart’s bill. Some current legislators, Representative Stuart’s former Republican opponent, former Representative Jeanne Ives, and groups like Awake Illinois and the Illinois Family Institute ginned up yet another social-media explosion, warning people that Stuart wanted to mandate all gender public restrooms everywhere.
The result was “phone calls, e-mails filled with vile language,” to Representative Stuart, according to a House Democratic spokesperson. None of the communications referenced the people and groups spewing the misinformation, the spokesperson said. “There's no specific connection other than they're all saying the same things essentially, all using the same language as these groups are, and they're all taking the same misinterpretation.”
Representative Stuart “has shared everything she has” with the Illinois State Police and other local law enforcement, the spokesperson said.
So far, the number of electronic witness slips generated against Stuart’s bill hasn’t come close to the massive numbers recorded on former Representative Conroy’s legislation (perhaps partially because last year was an election year and groups had been organizing around vaccines in general for years), but the end-result is essentially the same: A legislator was forced to temporarily back away from the public because a bunch of easily-manipulated, perpetually-angry “wackos” got all worked up over nothing - again.
The witness slips are an incredibly useful tool for activists because the groups can track their efforts’ real-time results online. Groups all across the political and issue spectrum try to encourage people to file witness slips on the General Assembly’s website in support or opposition to bills to show supporters, donors, the other side and legislators that they have public backing. The slips are empowering. People feel seen. They believe they’re making a difference. But the slip wars also provide a positive feedback loop for dark conspiracy theories.
And since it’s pretty easy to post one’s position online, the witness slip Web pages have become an extension of social media, for good and ill. There is no identity verification required, although users do have to fill out a “captcha” box to prove they’re not a robot.
There was a time when filling out a paper witness slip made you subject to forgery laws. Maybe it’s time now for responsible groups which are committed to public involvement sit down with legislators and come up with a solution for this. It won’t stop all the craziness, but at least the state doesn’t have to play a role.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.