After previous defeats, redistricting reformers start lobbying legislators

A coalition of good-government groups is renewing its push for a state constitutional amendment to reform the way legislative districts are drawn in Illinois.

After previous citizen-focused petition efforts failed to make the ballot in 2014 and 2016, supporters have turned their attention to pressuring lawmakers to let voters consider a "Fair Maps Amendment" that would create a 16-member independent commission to draw new districts. A three-fifths majority of both chambers of the General Assembly would be required to get a measure on the ballot. Voters would have final say.

The U.S. Constitution requires legislative and congressional boundaries to be redrawn every 10 years. In Illinois, the process for setting the boundaries is governed by the party in power, and critics say it enables parties to manipulate boundaries so as to ensure its continued control.

"One of our challenges is to help people understand how important this is," Madeleine Doubek, policy and civic engagement director for the Better Government Association, said in a meeting Tuesday in which advocates described the effort for the Daily Herald editorial board. "When districts are gerrymandered, that's where corruption is born."

The last redistricting campaign - in which some 563,000 signatures were collected calling for a ballot question - ultimately was rejected in November 2016 on a 4-3 decision by the Illinois Supreme Court.

"This is definitely going to be an uphill battle," said Jeff Raines, communications and engagement director for CHANGE Illinois, the group leading the Illinois Redistricting Collaborative.

But Raines said supporters remain optimistic because the latest proposal is modeled on a 2016 bill that passed the Illinois House with 105 "yes" votes.

The new legislation, sponsored by Republican Ryan Spain, of Peoria, in the House and Democrats Julie Morrison, of Deerfield, and Heather Steans, of Chicago, in the Senate, tweaks the 2016 legislation of then-Rep. Jack Franks, a Marengo Democrat who is now chairman of the McHenry County Board.

Instead of eight commissioners, the new bill calls for 16 members: seven Democrats, seven Republicans and two independents chosen by the two most senior state Supreme Court justices.

Because the previous efforts were citizen initiatives, the changes they proposed could apply only to legislative districts. But legislative measures have broader authority, allowing the new plan to apply to the drawing of congressional district boundaries as well. The plan would require at least 30 public hearings before new maps could be approved.

The law would also make the commission subject to requests for public records, including all communications and data used to create maps.

Elliot Richardson, president of the Illinois Small Business Advocacy Council, another of the groups behind the lobbying effort, said supporters will try to add co-sponsors to boost support for the legislation.

The groups are pushing for a vote by May in order to get a question on the November ballot. New legislative maps are due to be drawn in 2021, after the 2020 census.

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