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posted: 12/29/2016 1:00 AM

A new hope for redistricting reform

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  • Ra Joy

    Ra Joy

 
By Ra Joy
Guest columnist

Forget the holiday blues. If you live in Illinois, chances are you are suffering from an acute case of the political blues, a bug that has long afflicted our state.

Although it was divisive, the presidential election is not the root cause of Illinois' political gloom; rather, it's how our state does its business. Year after painful year, the people of Illinois pay for their politicians' unique talent for gaming, deadlocking and bankrupting the system.

There are few places where these dark arts are more evident than with gerrymandering -- the practice of manipulating legislative boundaries to protect incumbent politicians and reduce the number of competitive legislative races.

Thankfully for the people of Illinois, a treatment may be at hand to realize fair representation in our elections. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard cases from Virginia and North Carolina concerning racial gerrymandering and, in the next several months, it will hear another, more consequential case from Wisconsin.

While courts have been active in addressing racial gerrymandering, they have been reluctant to address partisan gerrymandering because no one has been able to determine when partisanship in redistricting goes too far. The legal team representing the plaintiffs in Whitford v. Gill, including University of Chicago law professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos, the Campaign Legal Center, and a group of private attorneys from Illinois and Wisconsin, were able to break new ground by propounding the long sought-after missing link: a standard by which partisan gerrymandering can be measured.

The three-judge panel in Wisconsin was persuaded by their arguments and ruled on Nov. 21 that Wisconsin's state assembly districts are unconstitutional, the first such ruling in 30 years.

Due to special procedural rules, the U.S. Supreme Court must rule on the case if appealed. Justice Anthony Kennedy, seen as the swing vote, expressed his opposition to partisan gerrymandering in the past but only if a judicially manageable standard was proposed, which is exactly what Whitford provides. If the high court agrees that Wisconsin's legislative boundaries are unconstitutional, the obscene system whereby politicians choose their voters instead of the other way around could be reined in considerably nationwide.

Supporters of redistricting reform across Illinois should be heartened. The Whitford case will represent a long-overdue dialogue in the high court and well-deserved scrutiny in our state about the unfair and noncompetitive way Illinois' political parties draw legislative boundaries.

For context, because of partisan gerrymandering, approximately 40 percent of elections for both chambers of the Wisconsin legislature were noncompetitive. By contrast, more than 60 percent of Illinois legislative elections were uncompetitive last November. What ails Wisconsin galls Illinois.

While the Illinois Supreme Court denied the people of Illinois the chance to vote on the proposed Independent Map Amendment last August, support for reform is pervasive throughout the state. More than 70 percent of Illinois voters support redistricting reform and over 560,000 citizens supported the petition seeking a ballot measure for an independent redistricting commission.

Since the Illinois Supreme Court's decision, CHANGE Illinois, a coalition of individuals and organizations fighting for fair maps, competitive elections, ballot access and government transparency, has accepted the baton from the Independent Map Amendment coalition and has been hard at work to find a pathway to enact responsible redistricting in Illinois. We are encouraged that, despite past setbacks, partners, donors and supporters in Illinois and around the nation are standing firm about not giving up.

Needless to say, we will be watching the U.S. Supreme Court's Whitford decision with great interest. In the meantime, we haven't ruled out any option to bring fairness to the redistricting process in Illinois -- including litigation in a federal venue.

People often tell me in my travels that it would take a miracle for redistricting reform to happen in Illinois. When I encounter these doubters, I trade hats from political reformer to a die-hard baseball fan and remind them that change doesn't happen overnight. If the Chicago Cubs can win the World Series, redistricting reform can and will happen in Illinois.

Ra Joy is the executive director of CHANGE Illinois.

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