By Meredith Colias
Groups wanting to revamp the state’s redistricting process hope to get enough popular support to add a constitutional amendment to the November 2014 ballot.
They are looking to bypass the legislature, where another citizens’ initiative for a proposal for a constitutional amendment failed in 2010. Voters can approve an amendment to be added to the Constitution by popular referendum, but supporters of the change would first need to collect at least 300,000 signatures to add it to the ballot. Reform groups attempted to collect the required signatures to get such a change before voters in 2010, but the effort fell short.
“This is the year,” said Ryan Blitstein, president of Change Illinois!, the main organization behind the latest push.
Supporters believe this time have a better chance of success because they are giving themselves more time, they are better financed and have a broader coalition.
Common Cause Illinois, the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform and other groups are backing the effort.
The requirements under the state’s Constitution are spare for how legislative and congressional districts should be drawn once every decade. As long as districts are basically equal in population, they only have to be “compact” and “contiguous.” Those who want to change the current process say that the political party in power uses the Constitution’s vague requirements to draw the districts to give itself an unfair advantage to win elections. During the last process, Democrats held the power to draw the maps. If no single party holds both legislative chambers and the governor's office, the ability to set the boundaries is been determined several times by literally drawing a name out of hat.
Kent Redfield, a political science professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Springfield, said allowing one party to draw districts to its advantage was creating a more partisan environment at the Statehouse by “eliminating the middle” of the political spectrum.
The reform group is proposing that the lines for legislative districts be drawn by a commission that does not include lawmakers, constitutional officers or political appointees. (Read the commission's proposed amendment here.) “Redistricting in Illinois is still a back-room process, one that fails to give the people of Illinois the transparency and accountability they deserve,” board member Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Latino Policy Forum, said in a prepared statement. “Our nonpartisan redistricting commission would bring the process out into the open, where it belongs, clearing the way for a more diverse candidate pool of public servants to lead,” said Puente, who also serves on the Illinois Issues Advisory Board.
Senate Republicans publicly backed the proposal to change the redistricting process that failed in 2010. Patty Schuh, a spokeswoman for Senate Leader Christine Radogno, said Republicans are supportive also support the renewed push.
“We welcome their effort,” she said. “If they need our assistance, I’m sure they will be reaching out.”
Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat who spearheaded the drafting of the current legislative map said, “It’s a healthy process to let citizens and advocates do just what they are doing.”
He said he was less supportive of following a model, such as the one California uses, that appoints an outside commission to approve the state’s redistricting plan. “I prefer a body that the people pick, versus some other designated person decides to pick,” he said.
“Who picks the pickers? How do you ensure you have representation on whatever commission?”
Raoul said that no matter what method the state uses, there would be complaints. “There’s no way that you can come up with a process and a map that all legislators are happy with.”
He said the issue was not as pressing at the moment. “We just went through a redistricting process. The map is set for the next 10 years,” Raoul said.
He is more concerned about issues such as pensions and concealed carry that are expected to come up in the session’s final weeks, he said.
“It’s not my top priority right now. I’d rather focus on … those things right now than something that’s going to happen eight years from now.”
Redistricting helped the House and Senate Democrats both win supermajorities in their chambers in the last election.
Theoretically, if Democrats voted in a bloc, they are able to do things like override Gov. Pat Quinn’s vetoes and approve bonds for new spending without Republican support in either chamber.
To see what Illinois could learn from redistricting experiences in other states, see “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” by Christopher Mooney in the January 2011 edition of Illinois Issues.