Madison County Board will consider putting secession question to voters in November

This story was originally published by St. Louis Public Radio, a Belleville News-Democrat content partner.

Madison County voters are one step closer to taking a symbolic vote on whether their county should separate from Chicago and Cook County to form a new state.

The Government Relations Committee of the Madison County Board on April 2 approved a nonbinding advisory referendum 6-1 that asks voters if they should communicate with other counties outside Chicago about secession. The full board still needs to approve the referendum for it to be on the November ballot.

The committee’s actions possibly negated a requirement that supporters gather roughly 7,800 signatures — about 8% of the county’s turnout during the last gubernatorial election — to get the referendum in front of the county’s voters.

The vote was a win for secession proponents, who’ve long argued downstate Illinois would be better off governing itself without Chicago’s political influence.

“It was a win for taxpayers in Madison County,” said Dave Stopher of Troy, who’s long advocated for the referendum. “It was a win for the citizens to be able to voice their opinion.”

The Metro East county became a key target for the Illinois Separation Referendum, the group behind secession, after the 2022 midterm elections. In that election, two townships on the eastern edge of the county voted in favor of separation.

So far, 26 downstate counties have approved symbolic votes, according to the group. In all, those counties include more than 476,000 people. Adding Madison County, population 264,000, to the list would be a major accomplishment for the group.

However, the vote would be purely symbolic and carry no true power. Proponents say it does send a signal, reflecting voters wishes’ like a poll or survey. But other elected officials and political observers say that Congress would need to sign off on secession, which is highly unlikely.

County board member Alison Lamothe, D-Edwardsville, cast the lone no vote on Tuesday. Lamothe, one of two Democrats on the seven-member committee, said she objects to secession and doesn’t see the point of sending the question to voters.

“To me, a referendum like this, it’s not offering real solutions,” Lamothe said. “Rather than offer solutions, it just, in my view, foments misperceptions.”

Last fall, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul rejected a similar question from neighboring Jersey County. The county does not have “the authority to secede from the State of Illinois and join another state,” Raoul’s legal opinion stated.

A county board member in Jersey County raised the possibility, and the Jersey County State’s Attorney, Benjamin Goetten, said he would reluctantly ask the state’s top attorney.

“While I would have preferred my name not be on this opinion, I was directed that the request had to be made by the state’s attorney,” Goetten said. “In an effort to ‘put it to bed’ so to speak, the board chairman asked that I make the request.”

Some Republican board members said Tuesday they wanted to amend the language of the referendum before the full board votes on it. Bethalto Republicans Mike Babcock and Mick Madison said they’d like to consider adding language that Madison County should join Missouri.

“At the end of the day, that’s not necessarily our goal,” Stopher said of Madison’s suggestion. “However, that is a possible outcome further on down the road — several steps away.”

But on Thursday, Madison said he’d forgo adding the Missouri amendment before the board meeting. He said he came to that conclusion after speaking with proponents.

“This is their issue. They have it written,” Madison said. “I think I’m going to leave it as is.”

Joining Missouri could still be an option down the road, he said.

Madison County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler said the board will likely vote on its referendum at the next meeting, which is scheduled for April 17.

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