By ALAN J. ORTBALS
A movement is afoot to change the way Illinois draws its legislative districts and it appears to have legs.
A group called the Independent Maps Coalition is collecting signatures to put the initiative on the November 2016 ballot and recently announced that it is more than half way to its goal.
The state constitution requires the realignment of legislative districts every 10 years following the national census — a process referred to as redistricting. The aim is to redraw district boundaries to reflect changing demographics. In Illinois, as in many states, the process of drawing those new maps is left to the legislature with gubernatorial approval. The majority party draws the maps; takes it to the floor and votes on it; then sends it to the governor. If the legislature and governor are of the same party, they can draw the maps to protect their majority.
“In the state of Illinois we allow the party in power to literally redistrict legislative districts so that in some cases it’s impossible for a true and fair election to take place,” said Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon, who represents the 112th Legislative District. “And that means you lose some democracy. Districts in Illinois have been carved up in such a manner that it’s almost predictable who is going to win and who is going to lose.”
The Independent Map Amendment would create an 11-member commission representing the demographic and geographic diversity of the state. The commission meetings and records would be open to the public and the commission would be required to hold public hearings throughout the state. The commission-drawn maps would be required to protect the voting rights of racial and ethnic minorities and the maps would be drawn without regard to incumbency or partisanship. Adoption of the maps would require approval of seven commissioners, including at least two Democrats and two Republicans.
“We (legislators) have a natural conflict when we’re drawing these maps and I think it’s unhealthy,” said state Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton, who represents the 56th Senate District. “It would be better to have a non-partisan group of citizens draw them. They will be subject to the constitutional requirements of population equity and commonality of interest so you don’t have maps that are imbalanced as far as class or race or age or anything of that sort. Republicans and Democrats will have a level playing field. I think it’s time that Illinois tried that. It could remove some acrimony from the current system, which would certainly be progress.”
The Coalition has a 23-member board of directors with members coming from a broad range of groups. Former Gov. Jim Edgar is a member as well as former Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon. There are also members representing church and ethnic groups, the Illinois Farm Bureau and the League of Women Voters. Cynthia Canary is its executive director.
“We have a very diverse board,” Canary said. “It was very important from the beginning to make sure that we had Democrats and Republicans and to make the point that this was a citizens’ initiative and not driven by one particular partisan perspective or another.”
The coalition announced at the end of September that it had collected 325,000 signatures on its way to a goal of 600,000. The petitions must be submitted to the State Board of Election by May 8, 2016 — six months prior to the general election in November. That goal might seem odd as the law requires just 290,216 valid signatures — 8 percent of the number that voted in the last gubernatorial election. Canary explained that they are not taking any chances as this is actually the third attempt at redistricting reform in the last six years with the first two failing.
“We have been collecting signatures for several months now and have somewhere in the neighborhood of 325,000 signatures under our belt already,” Canary said. “We need 290,000 valid signatures and valid is the key word because people sometimes sign twice or they aren’t actually registered to vote or you just can’t read their handwriting or whatever. So we are shooting for 600,000 to make sure that we’ve got a cushion that is unbeatable, if you will. We have both volunteers collecting signatures and we’ve got paid circulators. We validate all of the signatures and we check them against the voter rolls; 325, 000 is the number of signatures that we’ve put through our validation process. There are always a couple of thousand in a pile waiting to go in.”
Collecting more than twice as many signatures as required by law and putting them through their own vetting process might seem like a belt and suspenders type of approach but the Coalition is not taking any chances.
“Because entrenched political interests don’t want to give Illinoisans an opportunity to vote on this amendment, we know they will challenge the validity of some of our petition signatures,” said Coalition chairman Dennis FitzSimons. “To be absolutely certain we will meet the Illinois Constitution’s requirement of 290,216 valid signatures, we’re going to collect more than twice that number. Defenders of the current partisan system will not be able to overcome those numbers.”
Canary pointed to one opponent in particular who will put up a strong fight to keep it off the ballot — Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan. She said that Madigan’s legal team quashed a previous effort last year and she’s already seen misleading information being circulated to try to stem the petition tide.
“Gerrymandering is not just a Democratic thing,” Canary said. “When the Republicans have the majority, they do the same thing. In 2014, 60 percent of state legislative general elections were uncontested. In the primary, 89 percent were uncontested. We’re always beating up on voters and saying they’re too lazy; they don’t care, but when we really look at it we’re really not giving people a lot of choice. This is about competition and hopefully bringing some new ideas into the Capital because goodness knows we seem to need them.”