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A better way to choose Illinois lawmakers



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Updated: August 17, 2013 6:07AM

Illinois lawmakers are supposed to be chosen at the polling place. Instead, for all practical purposes, they often are picked by insiders behind closed doors long before Election Day.

There’s a better way. A petition drive is under way to place a constitutional amendment on the November 2014 ballot that would stop politicians from drawing the borders of legislative districts to suit themselves and leaving voters out in the cold. Citizens who want a more representative government should make sure their names are on one of those petitions.

The basic concept of gerrymandering — or drawing district boundaries that further a particular party’s interests — is to pack as many opposing voters as possible into the fewest number of districts while parceling out your own voters to create majorities in as many districts as possible.

Politicians have sought to gerrymander since the dawn of the Republic. Elbridge Gerry, for whom gerrymandering is named, was born 32 years before the Revolutionary War. What’s changed in recent years is that powerful computers and vast amounts of online personal data that effectively reveal voters’ preferences have raised the ability to control election results through gerrymandering to a new extreme. A bunch of reform-minded citizens with low-tech protest signs no longer has a chance at the polling place.

Last November, incumbents won 97 percent of the races in Illinois legislative districts. In two-thirds of those races, there wasn’t a single challenger, which gives you a pretty good idea of how one-sided Illinois races are. Democrats, who drew the maps, wound up with 63 percent of the seats in the General Assembly. That’s what nicely gerrymandered maps can do for you.

To fix that, a coalition called Yes! for Independent Maps on Wednesday began pushing the Illinois Independent Redistricting Amendment, which would create an 11-member commission to draw the boundaries of legislative districts. To get the amendment on the November 2014 ballot, the coalition needs more than 298,000 signatures by May 4, 2014.

The commission’s criteria in drawing legislative maps would be: contiguous areas substantially equal in population; not diluting votes of racial or language minorities; putting cities and other local units in the same district when possible; not splitting up “communities sharing common social and economic interests”; not favoring a particular political party, and not taking into account where politicians reside.

If that leads to more fairly drawn districts, as it should, it also should lead to more competitive races between candidates. That in turn should force candidates to pay more attention to voters’ concerns rather than the desire of party leaders, who now control redistricting and dole out campaign funds.

Will entrenched political interests try to hijack this system if voters put it in place? Of course.

But Ryan Blitstein, senior adviser to the Yes! campaign, says numerous safeguards have been put into place. For example, a nonpartisan panel would be created to weed out the public officials, politicians and lobbyists from the commission drawing the maps. If they missed anyone, the four legislative leaders could eliminate up to five more names.

The experiences in California and Florida, where similar systems were adopted in 2008 and 2010, have been encouraging, Blitstein said.

Back in 2010, a similar effort called the Illinois Fair Map Amendment fell far short of getting enough signatures to get on the ballot. But since then, Illinois has undergone another round of disgraceful redistricting, reminding voters how one-sided that process can be. Here’s your chance to make a difference before it’s time to redistrict Illinois again.

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