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On the Offensive Against Gerrymandering

A coalition of reform advocates has created an initiative that could take legislative redistricting out of the hands of Illinois politicians and vest it in an independent panel. Now all the coalition needs to do is collect one half-million signatures to get its initiative on the November ballot and then convince voters to approve it.

Illinois Fair Map has proposed a constitutional amendment that would create an independent commission that redraws state legislative maps. Illinois law mandates that legislative district boundaries be redrawn every 10 years, but that power currently is in the hands of officials seeking re-election. That legislators re-draw their own boundaries is unfair, according to the reform coalition.

“Partisan gerrymandering is not only legal, it is embedded in the Illinois Constitution,” according to a statement on the coalition’s website, Legislators draw district lines behind closed doors to protect incumbents and prevent true competition in elections, according Illinois Fair Map, which cited statistics that show 98 percent of incumbents have been re-elected in Illinois since 2001.

“Mapmakers study voting patterns based on such variables as age, ethnicity, income, geography and education. Using sophisticated computer programs, they can draw maps that will virtually guarantee candidates of one political party will consistently be chosen over candidates from an opposing party,” states Illinois Fair Map.

“Obviously, the folks who are drawing the maps are making sure they win. Our current system is flawed and political. It’s a winner-take-all system that has benefitted insider Democrats and Republicans over the past decade. It is the Illinois voters who have lost out,” said Jan Czarnik, executive director of the League of Women Voters. Czarnik’s organization is the coalition member that started the initiative.

Other members of Illinois Fair Map are the Better Government Association, the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, Illinois Reform Commission member Sheila Simon, and former members Patrick Collins and Brad McMillan. McMillan posted a statement on the Illinois Fair Map website.

“We were hopeful that the legislature was going to address redistricting reform in 2009, but with the year winding down now, it appears that we need to take it directly to the Illinois voters,” said McMillan in the Dec. 3 posting. “We want to put the power in the hands of the people – not the politicians.”

According to McMillan, the amendment would allow for an independent commission to draw the state’s legislative district boundaries after the 2010 census in an open and transparent process. The state’s practice of drawing from a hat to determine which party controls the redistricting process would be eliminated, instead calling upon the Supreme Court as the fail-safe. The amendment does not address congressional districts due to constitutional limits of citizens initiatives.

Andy Shaw, executive director of the Better Government Association, said his organization joined because it is committed to cleaning up Illinois government through civic engagement. “For too long, government has been run by people behind closed doors. This is a rare opportunity to actually let citizens have a voice – and decide on their representatives.”

The Illinois Fair Map proposal also gives voters a chance to participate by starting their own drive and collecting signatures. A copy of the petition and the amendment is available at the website. Supporters are urged to print copies, collect signatures, have the petitions notarized and submit them to Illinois Fair Map in care of the League of Women Voters by April 1.

“We’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback from people in the community,” said Mary Schaafsma, the Issues and Advocacy Coordinator for the League of Women Voters. “It’s a citizens’ initiative.”

Shaw is cautious yet optimistic that positive change may come either from passage of the amendment or from legislators themselves.

“It is an uphill battle every way – legally, practically, logistically – but there’s a reform movement in Illinois right now that’s unprecedented, and we have to take advantage of it. I think the chances are better than 50-50,” said Shaw.

“This is such a simple issue. Should we be able to choose our elected representatives, or should they choose us?” Shaw explained. “The answer, in Democracy 101, is pretty obvious to everyone but the [state] reps themselves, which is why an amendment may be necessary. If, however, state lawmakers get religion over the winter, they can enact this without the torturous referendum process. Let’s see what happens.”

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