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updated: 4/29/2014 7:34 PM

Lawmaker's fair map rejected in Ohio; now he backs similar effort in Illinois

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  • Mike Fortner

    Mike Fortner

By Marty Hobe
Correction: The Chicago Urban League and Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund are not publicly opposing the independent map proposal or the Yes for Independent Maps group. The groups had opposed a similar proposal in 2010. Today they said they aren't taking a side on the issue.

State Rep. Mike Fortner has so much experience in the nitty-gritty of drawing legislative district maps that he entered and won a contest to draw new boundaries in Ohio, a state where he's never lived.

Now, the West Chicago Republican is backing a proposal to take the Illinois map drawing process out of his hands and the hands of all state legislators, with a goal of giving neither major political party an advantage.

But like his 2011 Ohio map -- which lost out to a politically concocted map favoring Republicans -- the Illinois effort could face a tough road to becoming reality.

The political stakes could be high. In Illinois, the political party that gets to draw districts from which lawmakers are elected can skew the results to help themselves.

Democrats drew the current legislative map that was first used in 2012, a year when that party won historic majorities in the state House and Senate.

Led by the group Yes for Independent Maps, the Illinois initiative would put a question on ballots in November asking voters to change the state Constitution so a nonpartisan committee with no lawmakers on it would create the maps.

Fortner is not involved in Yes for Independent Maps, but he is among those who back the effort.

In 2011, he won two Ohio contests to draw fair state legislative and congressional district maps of the state, rather than maps that were gerrymandered for political results.

"Another government group, not unlike the ones doing the fair map amendment in Illinois, was demonstrating how much better Ohio could get by having the public draw the (map)," Fortner said.

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan opposes the independent map initiative. Madigan said even though the initiative is citizen-driven, it's still just politics as usual.

"The redistricting Constitutional amendment is just pure Republican Party politics," Madigan said. "They're angry. One thing about Republicans is they don't hold back their cards, they throw their cards right on the table."

The Chicago Urban League and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which opposed a similar effort in 2010 out of the belief minority concerns were not adequately represented, have not taken a position on this year's independent map effort.

In the Ohio contest, Fortner said the contestants' maps had to split as few counties as possible while keeping the districts compact. The maps had to be politically fair or, as Fortner said, designed to come out with a party split as close to "50-50" as possible.

Despite winning the contest and getting support from the Ohio legislature's minority Democratic Party, Fortner's maps were never implemented.

"It wasn't about benefiting the voters, it was designed to benefit political results," Fortner said of the map still used in Ohio.

Fortner said there are a lot of similarities between Ohio and Illinois, including the tilted maps for political results. However, in Ohio the Republicans hold both chambers of the legislature and the governor's office, in contrast to the Democratic majority in Illinois.

"The Democrats in Ohio filed my map thinking that was a fairer map than what the Republicans had drawn," he said.

As it stands now in Illinois, after the U.S. census every 10 years lawmakers must draw and agree on a map of legislative districts. If they cannot agree (they haven't for the past four decades) the secretary of state pulls a name out of a hat, and the chosen lawmaker becomes the deciding vote on the map. Whichever party that member is affiliated with gains control of the map.

The members of the controlling party can use census data to draw districts where the election results are more likely to favor that party. In 2012, only two suburban counties -- McHenry and Kendall -- voted Republican in the presidential race.

The amendment Yes for Independent Maps is proposing calls for a nonpartisan committee with no members of the legislature to draw a map reflecting the common interests of communities, including ethnic backgrounds.

Yes for Independent Maps says it has enough signatures to put the question on the November ballot, asking voters if they want an independent committee to draw the map instead of legislators.

But though the group says it has enough signatures to get on the ballot, organizers are expected to continue petitioning because the signatures will most likely be challenged by opponents of the measure and sent to the state board of elections to check for validity. It could also be decided by the courts.

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