If there is one thing that the Illinois Senate legislative redistricting committee has exposed since initiating public hearings last July, it's the undemocratic nature of our legislative mapping system. Here's our quick summary of how the current system works...
If there is one thing that the Illinois Senate legislative redistricting committee has exposed since initiating public hearings last July, it's the undemocratic nature of our legislative mapping system. Here's our quick summary of how the current system works:
In 1981, 1991, and 2001 lawmakers tried to tackle redistricting as whole, but each time failed to find consensus. Instead, the legislative leaders appointed four members from both parties to an eight-member commission who then met behind closed doors to tweak the district boundaries. Not surprisingly, those negotiations came to a halt as well, with both sides proposing a map that benefited their party. This gridlock prompted what Roosevelt University political science professor Paul Green dubs "the big mistake" -- a tie-breaker policy in which a ninth member of the commission is selected by lottery (as WBEZ's Sam Hudzik put it, "the secretary of state pull[s] a name out of a hat, box or whatever"). The party affiliation of that additional member essentially "sets the stage for who runs the legislature for the next 10 years," Green says.
Over the weekend, the Peoria Journal-Star was the latest to chime in on this process, calling it "an affront to democracy":
With that power and some computer software, politicians end up cherry-picking their own voters and drawing safe districts where one party or the other has the edge. That has led to some of the most gerrymandered districts in America. It is an affront to democracy.
Currently some 98 percent of state lawmakers are re-elected, the proponents of the Illinois Fair Map Amendment point out. Most receive token opposition, if any, on the ballot because many decent candidates don't want to waste time and money on a race where the fix is in - in short, a political suicide mission. The handful of races that are truly contested turn into a battle royale between the top legislative leaders, who end up shoving money, staffers, time - mostly money - into the fight, in turn creating a too-often-beholden winner.
Good-government advocates aren't holding their breath that legislative leaders will miraculously scrap a system that can provide them with electoral advantages. To the contrary, they're pushing their own solution: the Illinois Fair Map Amendment, supported by the League of Women Voters, the Better Government Association, and the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (ICPR), among others. The Journal-Star sums up the proposal:
[T]he reformers are proposing an independent redistricting commission, devoid of lawmakers, lobbyists, state employees or party hacks. Their meetings would be open to the public and held around the state. They'd release their proposals and the data supporting them. They would aim to create truly compact, contiguous districts that try to avoid slicing up communities - like East Peoria, which is served by three state House districts. Most important, party registration and the voting patterns of residents could not be taken into account in drawing the boundaries. The Legislature would still get a whack at the map but if the parties could not agree, the commission's version would be imposed over any objections.
The first challenge for the reformers -- and it's a big one -- is to round up the 500,000 signatures required to get the measure on next November's ballot. The following step, ICPR's David Morrison tells us, will be to survive the inevitable petition challenges.
In the meantime, editorial boards across the state, including the Sun-Times, are urging Illinoisans not to "be shy about signing on the dotted line." While the Fair Map Amendment isn't the only reform on the table, it appears that it's the one to watch.