Opinion: Springfield Is the Reason Springfield Is So Corrupt

A team of researchers at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government has figured out why Illinois is so corrupt: our capital is more remotely located away from our biggest city than any other state’s. According to the study “Isolated Capital Cities, Accountability and Corruption: Evidence from U.S. States,” a state capital located far from most of a state’s activity results in less media scrutiny on legislators, which removes an important check on corruption.

To the extent that media outlets are at least partly trying to provide content that interests their audience (e.g. Mullainathan and Shleifer 2005, Gentzkow and Shapiro 2010), and to the extent that media consumers are at least somewhat more interested (ceteris paribus) in what happens close to where they live, it would be reasonable to expect that an outlet’s coverage would focus on things that take place where its audience is concentrated. If so, outlets whose audience is more concentrated around the capital city would tend to give more extensive coverage of state politics. As a result, one would conclude that in states where the population is more concentrated around the capital there would be more intense media coverage of state politics, and therefore greater accountability. This is an evidently plausible story, which seems to underlie the view that connects isolated state capitals to the prevalence of corruption through lower levels of media accountability.

Rich Miller, publisher of the statehouse website Capitol Fax, once wrote that “Chicago media is notorious for ignoring state legislative races, which is one reason I’ve been able to establish my niche.” In Chicago, only people who follow politics as avidly as fantasy players follow baseball can even name their state representative or state senator. It is true that Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s trial received enormous media coverage, but that’s because it took place in Chicago, not Springfield. The study also found that legislators received more campaign contributions in isolated state capitals, which is the opposite of the reason for establishing them far away from cities.

We are again motivated by the history of discussions over where to locate the state capitals, from the 18th century until the last state capital move, in 1910 (Oklahoma). In these discussions an oft-stated concern was to keep the capital away from major economic centers, as this was perceived as a way to stave off an undue influence of economic power over state politics. To check whether this influence is in fact related to the isolation of the capital city, we look at how the amount of campaign
contributions to state politics correlates to the concentration of population around the capital. As it turns out, we find a negative correlation between concentration and contributions: a state like Nevada, with its isolated Carson City, witnesses a larger amount of contributions (controlling for the size of its economy) than does broadly comparable Utah and its population largely concentrated around Salt Lake City. This goes against the presumption, and would be consistent with a scenario in which low levels of accountability due to lower media scrutiny and citizen participation open the door to a more prominent role for money in politics.

However, this is not the reason the Illinois state capital is so far from Chicago. Springfield is Illinois’s third capital, the end of a migration that followed the state’s pattern of settlement from south to north. The first capital, Kaskaskia, is in the southwestern corner of the state. The second, Vandalia, is in Southern Illinois, along modern-day Interstate 70. The capital was moved to Springfield in 1839, as the result of a legislative campaign by Abraham Lincoln and his fellow Central Illinois senators. At the time, Springfield was close to the state’s population center. Chicago, which had been incorporated just two years before, had less than 5,000 people. It didn’t become a major city until the late 19th Century. By then, Springfield, which is located just a few miles from the geographic center of Illinois, in Chestnut, was established as the capital.

If we wanted capital that was as close to all the people as possible, we could move it to Morris, which is the population center of Illinois. But that would be a long drive for Southern Illinois legislators, and make them resent us even more. Maybe Gov. Pat Quinn is trying to correct this by visiting Springfield only when it’s absolutely necessary, and holding all his bill signings in Chicago. 

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