For the past two years, a well-funded and largely below-the-radar effort has been playing out across Illinois aimed at trying to curb the influence of politicians in perhaps the most political of all games: the once-a-decade redrawing of the state House and Senate districts.
So far, a diverse and bipartisan coalition pushing the effort has received more than $2.5 million in contributions as it tries to get a question before voters this fall asking to switch to a more independent way to craft the boundaries. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently gave $500,000. Venture capitalists Kenneth and Anne Dias-Griffin have kicked in $250,000. Members of the Crown family of industrialists have tossed in another $100,000.
That money has been used to create field offices, help pay for petition passers and to amass a defense fund for a possible legal challenge to the effort to get the redistricting change proposal before voters.
It takes about 300,000 valid petition signatures to get on the Nov. 4 ballot. On Tuesday, the Yes for Independent Maps group said it has gathered 346,759 signatures, but hopes to collect between 450,000 and 500,000 signatures by April 18. Some signatures could be found invalid, so it helps to have a cushion.
At stake is the process political parties use to reshape the 59 Senate and 118 House districts following each census — not only to reflect changes in population but more so to maximize political numbers in the House and Senate while weakening the opposing party.
Ryan Blitstein, senior adviser to the independent map group, admitted the issue can seem “obtuse and complex” but maintained it is “fundamental to our democracy.”
“It’s not just sort of a wonky policy issue. It matters in real life because the way that the districts are drawn really dictates who votes where,” he recently told a group of public officials and policy experts. “Who votes where determines who gets elected and who gets elected determines all of the laws — the people who determine the laws on the air we breathe, the taxes we pay, the schools our children are sent to.”
Under the state’s current setup, the new map has to pass muster with the House, Senate and governor. In the past, Illinois Democrats and Republicans had split control of those three institutions, and that meant the power to draw the districts rested largely on chance. The current constitution mandates a bipartisan panel draw the map but in the case of a tie, two names are submitted — one Democrat and one Republican — to act as the tie breaker in a ceremonial drawing often conducted out a replica Lincoln stove pipe hat.
The tie-breaker was inserted in the 1970 Illinois Constitution because those who wrote it never thought political parties would leave such power to fate and that a compromise legislative map would result. It didn’t work that way.
In 2011, however, Democrats held control of all the levers of power for the first time and drew boundaries aimed at keeping Republicans out of power in the legislature through this decade. Indeed, Democrats now hold super majorities over Republicans in each legislative chamber.
The proposed constitutional change would not affect congressional districts, but it would create a five-step process leading to the selection of an 11-member commission to draw the new state legislative political boundaries.
A nonpartisan applicant review panel, picked by the state’s auditor general, would cull through the names of potential commission members, weeding out those with potential political conflicts, until 100 names are selected. Each of the four legislative leaders could strike five names. Then, the names of seven commissioners are drawn in a lottery — two Democrats, two Republicans and three independents. The seven also must represent the state’s five judicial districts, including three from Cook County.
After that, the four legislative leaders each would appoint one name from the remaining pool of applicants to round out the commission.
It would take the votes of seven of 11 commissioners to approve a new map, including at least two Democrats, two Republicans and two independents. If no map is agreed upon, the chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court and the senior justice from the opposing party would pick a special commissioner to draw the final map.
Currently, Blitstein said, the map-making process is “done by a couple of people, behind closed doors, without much regard for communities, without much regard for people, without much regard for citizens and them being well represented down in Springfield. And so what you end up getting is a partisan gerrymandering that benefits one party or another. This isn’t a Democrat or Republican issue. Unfortunately it’s a bipartisan problem and it demands a bipartisan solution.”
Some minority voting rights groups, while not happy with the current mapmaking process, have not signed onto the movement for the proposed amendment.
“How do you actually make sure minority representation is in this process?” Jorge Sanchez, a senior litigator for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, asked at a recent forum on the proposal. Sanchez said the selection process for the new mapmaking commission would provide “very limited opportunities for communities of color to have representation on the panel.”
The Chicago Urban League also has not backed the proposed amendment, though the Latino Policy Forum is supporting it after the growth in Latino population in Illinois resulted in no net increase in Hispanic representation in the most recently drawn legislative districts.
But Michael Kolenc, the independent map group’s campaign manager, said the proposal specifically says that a new map “cannot dilute or diminish the ability of a racial or language minority to elect someone of their choice and it also says that you have to respect communities that share a common economic and social interest.”
More to the point, however, he said that rather than being a closed-door process controlled by politicians, required public hearings and meetings of the proposed commission creates a heightened level of transparency for all concerned groups.
“The transparency involved really allows organizations and citizens to see how the maps are being drawn,” Kolenc said.
The Nov. 4 ballot could be filled with potential constitutional changes.
Besides the redistricting proposal, Republican governor candidate Bruce Rauner is seeking to ask voters to change the state constitution to limit state lawmakers to eight years in office. Rauner’s plan also would reduce the size of the Senate, add some seats to the House and make it harder to overturn a governor’s veto. Additionally, Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan has a proposed amendment that would impose a 3-percentage-point tax surcharge on incomes of $1 million or more.