Editorial: This time, we can hold lawmakers accountable on 'fair maps'
For at least the past five years, Illinois lawmakers have had the best of all political worlds when it comes to redistricting reform. They've been able to avow support for two separate drives, while the Democratic political leadership took care of ensuring that hugely popular measures never went to the voters.This time, they may not be so lucky. This time, we can hold them accountable. And we should.
Thanks to an effort spearheaded by CHANGE Illinois, a good-government organization that also led drives in 2014 and 2016, lawmakers will have the opportunity to demonstrate their commitment - or lack thereof - to fair and responsive government as soon as this May. CHANGE Illinois, joined by numerous agencies from across the political spectrum, is promoting legislation that again seeks to blunt the power of political parties to manipulate one of the most fundamental building blocks of our democracy in their favor.
By controlling the maps that create legislative and congressional districts, a party is able to concentrate its constituencies and dilute those of its adversaries. This practice, popularly known as gerrymandering, has given Democrats control in the Illinois House and Senate for two decades, and, with Democrats firmly in control of both houses, poses the likely prospect of a third in 2020.
Gerrymandering is widely condemned around the country, but openly embraced by political power brokers of both parties. A state Supreme Court ruling earlier this year broke a Republican stranglehold on Pennsylvania. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday decrying the practice by Democrats in Maryland. What is so horrible about it? Madeleine Doubek, policy and civic engagement director for the Better Government Association, stated that case for our editorial board.
"When districts are gerrymandered, that's where corruption is born and that's the start of the whole process," she said. "Because your vote is being taken from you ... That is why we've had the same legislative leaders for so long, because they consolidate their power and politicize the entire process from the second they draw those maps."
Previous efforts had to come in the form of citizen initiatives, because Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan's tight control could always be counted on to kill legislation with any promise and few Democrats were willing to challenge their party's leader - aside from floating false bills designed to cripple the initiatives.
But in 2016, then-Rep. Jack Franks, a Marengo Democrat, introduced a House bill that not only provided political cover while his party fought behind the scenes to kill a so-called "Fair Maps" initiative but also provided the framework for meaningful reform. The state Senate scuttled Franks' bill by producing a watered-down competing proposal of its own. Now, CHANGE Illinois has built its new proposal for a constitutional amendment on Franks' foundation - with which 105 state representatives sided.
Two Democrats - Julie Morrison of Deerfield and Heather Steans of Chicago - are introducing a Senate bill that would put the amendment on the November ballot. A Republican - Ryan Spain of Peoria - is introducing the same bill in the House. Now, we will not face the complex process of a citizen initiative, and lawmakers in both houses will have to put their stand on the record unequivocally.
This measure, by the way, is even better on some points than the previous initiatives. It demands more transparency, creates a more expansive panel for drawing the maps and, importantly, applies to congressional as well as legislative boundaries.
An important election faces us in November. All legislative candidates will claim to support fair and honest government. Their position on this amendment will give you a good idea of how sincere they are. And, even before the campaign, incumbents will show their true colors on the floors of the House and Senate. Watch them closely. Hold them accountable. We intend to.