Bill to redesign Illinois' state flag awaits governor's signature

Illinois' state flag could be headed for a makeover.

A bill that would form a commission to determine whether the flag should be redesigned and potentially pick a new design is awaiting Gov. J.B. Pritzker's signature after being approved by the Senate in March and the House late last week.

"I think if you asked anyone outside the state to identify our flag, not many could," said state Rep. Daniel Didech, a Buffalo Grove Democrat who co-sponsored the original Senate bill in the House. "There's an opportunity to market our state and a side opportunity to engage young people in government, and there's not many times we've had legislation that could do that."

However, the initiative is not without detractors. Votes in both chambers were largely along party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.

"I think this is a great example of the misplaced priorities we're seeing this year from our colleagues across the aisle," said state Sen. Seth Lewis, a Bartlett Republican. "Instead of focusing on really pressing issues like ethics reform ... we're talking about a new state flag."

Russell Middleton, an architect from downstate Normal who testified against the bill during committee hearings, was more blunt: "It's dumb. We've got so many things to worry about, and we're worrying about the flag."

Didech, who initially championed a similar bill in 2019, said the proposed flag commission bill is one of several initiatives Democratic legislators are pursuing during the current session, it just happens to be one of the more colorful pieces of legislation.

"We're capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time," he said.

And Democratic legislators aren't the only ones who believe the flag is due for a redesign. Vexillologists and vexillographers - people who study flags and people who design flags - are also not too keen on the Illinois banner.

"In the United States, about 30 states put a shield or a coat of arms on a solid background, 24 of them are blue backgrounds, but Illinois' is white, big whoop," said Ted Kaye, author of "Good Flag, Bad Flag" and secretary of the North American Vexillogical Association. "We call them seals on bed sheet flags. They aren't very distinctive."

Flag experts say the Illinois flag is "too busy" or "chaotic." A 2001 NAVA survey of all flags from the 50 states, U.S. territories and Canadian provinces listed Illinois' flag at 49th out of 72 flags. New Mexico was tops and Georgia was at the bottom.

Illinois' flag violates almost every tenet of good flag design, Kaye said.

"What makes a good flag is simplicity, meaningful symbols, few colors, no lettering or seals and distinctiveness," he said. "The flag of Illinois really falls short on all of those."

As noted, the Illinois state flag features a white background with multiple images, words and dates centered on it.

The main image is a bald eagle on a rock. The rock is labeled with two years: 1818 and 1868. The first year is when Illinois became a state and the second year is when the state's seal was approved.

"Why?" Kaye laughed.

In the eagle's mouth is a red ribbon with the state's motto, "State Sovereignty, National Union."

While one of the eagle's talons is perched on the rock, the other is atop a shield emblazoned with 13 white stars on a blue background and 13 red and white stripes, which represent the initial colonies of the United States.

Under the shield is an olive branch, all of which is resting on a field of green prairie grass with a stretch of blue water in the background and the bright yellow sun rising from it.

Below all of that is the word "ILLINOIS."

"Can you imagine a national flag with the word 'FRANCE' on it to let people know who it belonged to?" Kaye said.

Flag experts often point to states like Texas, Colorado and New Mexico, or cities such as Chicago, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., as iconic flags.

"People get those tattooed on their bodies," said Michael Green, owner of the Indiana-based Flags for Good. "In the end, flags are about people. People want to belong and they want to display symbols of belonging."

Redesigning flags is kind of en vogue now, too. Mississippi and Utah both redesigned their flags recently, as did Cook County just last year.

Many proponents of changing the state flag already have a front-runner. In 1918, Wallace Rice, the vexillographer who designed Chicago's famous flag, created a "centennial flag" for the state that is much different from what is currently in use.

Rice's flag is a triband of horizontal stripes that run white, dark blue and white again. Ten smaller blue stars form an equilateral triangle along the upper left side in the top white band, then a large white star rests on the left side of the blue band and 10 more small stars form a similar triangular pattern on the lower left side of the bottom white band. The smaller stars represent the 20 states admitted to the union before Illinois, and the large star is Illinois as the 21st state.

"That's a better design," Green agreed.

If Pritzker signs the bill, the new commission is required to select no more than 10 new designs by Sept. 1, 2024, after working with schools, libraries and community groups. A report from the commission is then due to the legislature three months later that outlines whether the state should adopt a new flag or not and what the criteria was for choosing the final designs.

The commission is also expected to include in its report an estimate of what it will cost to make any changes to the state flag.

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