Lawmakers hope to garner support for ballot question
Amendment would alter redistricting process in Illinois
Twice defeated in the Illinois Supreme Court, advocates for stripping lawmakers of the power to draw legislative district boundaries are making a push to put a proposed amendment to the state constitution on the November ballot before the lines are set for another decade.
While the previous efforts aimed to get the issue on the ballot through petition-driven citizen initiatives, the latest attempt is backed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers who hope to gather enough support from colleagues to get the question on the fall ballot.
A proposed state constitutional amendment filed Thursday in the Illinois House and an identical version filed Friday in the Senate would put the power to redraw state legislative and congressional district maps in the hands of an independent, citizen-led commission.
Similar measures are introduced perennially in Springfield but routinely fail to gain the three-fifths majorities needed in each chamber to be placed on the ballot.
“Politicians picking their voters clearly is the epitome of a conflict of interest,” said Madeleine Doubek, the executive director of CHANGE Illinois, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for redistricting reform. “When politicians are protected by rigged maps, some of them come to believe they can act with impunity.”
Redistricting occurs every 10 years after the U.S. census to account for changes in population, with the next map set to be drawn in 2021. This spring is the last chance for Illinois legislators to put the question to voters before new maps are drawn.
Under the Illinois Constitution, legislative district boundaries are determined by the General Assembly, often behind closed doors. The introduction of the proposed amendment comes two weeks after some legislators criticized Gov. J.B. Pritzker for not discussing the issue in his State of the State address.
Pritzker, who supported taking lawmakers out of the redistricting process when campaigning for governor, has said he’ll veto any partisan map that reaches his desk. That’s little comfort to Republican lawmakers, who note the Democratic supermajorities in the House and Senate could override his veto.
The state Supreme Court struck down previous petition-driven attempts to change the constitution, saying they failed the limited test for getting a citizen initiative on the ballot to alter the document. Those rulings have basically determined that only lawmakers themselves can change the method for redrawing legislative districts, which would run counter to the self-interest of legislators.
Absent the amendment going through, the next redrawing in 2021 would be done by Democrats, who control the governor’s office and the legislature, and can approve a new map through legislation without any Republican input.
House Speaker Michael Madigan, who holds significant control over the mapdrawing process and also chairs the state Democratic Party, opposed a proposed referendum in 2016 on the grounds that it could harm minority representation in the General Assembly.
Backers of the latest plan say its language mirrors state and federal voting rights laws.
Democratic Sen. Melinda Bush, of Grayslake, one of the Senate sponsors of the proposal, said it’s up to rank-and-file lawmakers to put pressure on leaders to make sure the measure is called for a vote.
“I believe that if we have a mass of legislators that want this amendment to move forward and be on the ballot, that that’s the way that leaders are going to pay attention, know we’re serious,” Bush said. “It has to be bipartisan.”
The proposal, co-sponsored in the Senate by Republican Sen. John Curran, of Woodridge, would create a 17-person commission, to be appointed by the state Supreme Court’s chief justice and the most senior justice of a different political party.
The commission would consist of three nonpartisan members and 14 partisan members, split equally between the two parties. The proposed constitutional amendment would tackle gerrymandering — the process by which politicians draw districts to their political advantage — by requiring 11 of the 17 commissioners to approve the redrawn maps.
Amid an ongoing federal corruption probe that has resulted in criminal charges against three current and former state lawmakers, the time is ripe for giving voters a say in the redistricting process, supporters say. They argue that allowing the party in power to draw safe districts allows incumbents to become entrenched and stifles competition.
“If you want to root out corruption in this state, this is the place where we need to start,” said Republican Sen. Dan McConchie of Lake Zurich.
A poll last year from Southern Illinois University’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute found 67% of Illinois voters supported putting redistricting in the hands of an independent commission instead of the legislature.
The poll of 1,000 voters was conducted March 11-17 for the Simon Institute and had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points. The sample results skewed to a majority of male voters, and the results were not weighted to reflect the state’s racial or ethnic voting population.
Lawmakers have until May 3 to approve the proposed amendment. If the proposal makes it to the ballot, it would need approval from 60% of those voting on the question or a majority of those voting in the election to be adopted.