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Election reform boring? Not really

Updated: June 27, 2013 6:41AM



What do these terms have in common: Debt ceiling, unfunded liability, sequester, infrastructure and filibuster?

They’re important public policy issues, but they’re also “government speak,” so our eyes glaze over when we hear them.

In real time they’re numbers with lots of zeroes, projects with lots of cement, and maneuvers with lots of blabbing.

About as interesting as watching paint dry.

But their long-term impact, individually or collectively, on our lives and our livelihoods, could be more like getting hit in the forehead with a paint ball.

Ouch!

So let’s consider two more words from the same family: Redistricting, the periodic process of reconfiguring the legislative fiefdoms of elected officials; and gerrymandering, the advanced art of manipulating fiefdom boundaries for maximum political advantage.

This occurs at the beginning of each decade, after the census, when the party in power draws a new map that creates the maximum number of “friendly” districts where voters are likely to elect their candidates, while cramming the other party’s nominees into the fewest possible districts.

It’s known colloquially as the “Incumbent Protection Act” because it lets officeholders choose their voters instead of voters electing their representatives.

Perverse? Yes, but highly effective.

Constitutional? Also yes, the courts tell us, unless it disenfranchises minorities.

In Chicago, the mayor and his City Council lieutenants manipulate maps to fill their aldermanic allies’ wards with probable supporters, and relocate the homes of opponents outside the ward boundaries.

Cold.

In Springfield, the players are different but the game and the outcome are the same.

Democrats, who control the House and the Senate, have drawn the last two maps and reaped the benefits of their gerrymandering.

They’ve also completed the ignominious task of plunging Illinois into a fiscal and ethical sewer.

So the voters replaced them with Republicans, right?

Hardly.

The Dems actually picked up enough new legislative seats last fall to amass veto-proof majorities in both chambers.

Counterintuitive, but true.

In some districts the Dems fielded stronger candidates or ran better campaigns, but in others gerrymandering made the difference.

And that helps explain why so few races are competitive, or even contested, and why incumbents rarely lose.

Is that healthy for democracy? Of course not.

So how can we clean it up?

Well, lawmakers can pass a bill replacing gerrymandering with computerized mapmaking based on geography and population, not politics.

Say what? Elected reps making it easier for opponents to beat them by unrigging the process?

Next.

Voters, as in “we the people,” can reform the system by referendum. They can sign enough petitions to put an apolitical redistricting plan on the ballot, and then pass it.

The League of Women Voters gave it a valiant try two years ago but fell short.

This year CHANGE ILLINOIS, the reform group that pushed campaign finance limits through the General Assembly, is leading a new drive that, if successful, gives us a healthier redistricting process in 2020, and a leveler and more competitive playing field in the 2022 elections.

That’s a long way off.

And it will take millions of dollars and millions of votes to get there.

And yes — it sounds like watching paint dry.

But it could have the impact of paint balls hitting the foreheads of our permanent politicians.

Splat!

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at ashaw@bettergov.org or 312-386-9097.



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