PI Original Angela Caputo Thursday February 25th, 2010, 3:27pm

Chicago's New Incumbent Protection Plan?

State lawmakers aren't the only ones gearing up for a redistricting fight next year. Whoever sits on the Chicago City Council will have enormous influence over how ward maps are redrawn in 2011. We stumbled upon a measure that demonstrates how officials at both the city and state level are working together to head off potential challengers and preserve their power.

State lawmakers aren't the only ones gearing up for a redistricting fight next year. Whoever sits on the Chicago City Council will have influence over how ward maps are redrawn in 2011. That's lead some local officials -- seemingly threatened by the support for progressives like Rudy Lozano Jr. and Jesus "Chuy" Garcia in Latino-majority Southwest Side -- to push for an innovative and sneaky election reform that will make it easier to head off challengers.

We recently stumbled across a bill (HB6000) introduced by State Rep. Joe Lyons (D-Chicago) that would make it a whole lot harder for new candidates to get on ballots in 2011. Lyons is attempting to bump up the number of required signatures on nominating petitions in Chicago elections to 500. Compared the current requirement -- a mere 2 percent of the votes cast in the ward during the preceding election year -- enacting the measure would raise the threshold in every ward. In some, the increase would be dramatic; last election cycle, for example, a 22nd Ward candidate only needed 87 names.

There's another catch too. Lyons' measure -- which passed out of committee this week and is headed to the House floor for a vote -- seeks to codify a state statue that ensures each voter can only ink one candidate's petition. That's currently the lay of the state election law, Jim Allen from the Chicago Board of Elections points out, but it has been routinely challenged because of a gray area in another state statute known as the Revised Cities and Villages Act of 1941. That, of course, would be eliminated by writing the rule into the amended statue.

Voters will be the big losers if the measure is adopted, David Morrison from the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform tells us. "It really puts a terrible burden on petition signers," he says. "And in small wards, [candidates] could rack up 2,000 or 3,000 signatures and there would be no one left to sign."

Over in the 49th Ward, Ald. Joe Moore calls the bill an "incumbent protection plan" that's intended to "keep so-called nuisance candidates off the ballot." Morrison thinks ward bosses are concerned about issues bigger than just job security, too. Their ulterior motive? Securing a seat at the redistricting table. For those just getting up to speed, the legislative districts are reapportioned every 10 years based on the newest census figures. Alderman work together to rejigger districts. As long as they take into account population changes and don't disrupt voting ethnic blocks, lawmakers can slice and dice sitricts at will. "Whoever does win has the power," Morrison tells us, "to decide who your constituents are and even where your challengers live." Not a bad perk.

If there's one lesson that can be learned from past remaps, it's that Mayor Daley's staunchest allies know how to hold onto that power. Only this time, they're trying to stay one step ahead of potential rivals by altering the election system behind the scenes.

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