New Movement for Redistricting Reform in Illinois

The Illinois League of Women Voters, in conjunction with Republican leadership in the state legislature, kicked off a new movement for redistricting reform in Illinois called the “Illinois Fair Map Amendment.” Proposed on February 18, the constitutional amendment will be simultaneously introduced as a bill in the Illinois General Assembly and as a petition for an initiative constitutional amendment that will be in effect for the 2011 redistricting cycle.

The amendment’s language calls for a nine-member independent redistricting commission, consisting of two members appointed by each of the four legislative leaders (majority and minority leaders of both houses). These appointees would as a group elect the ninth member and chair of the commission. The amendment would put strict limits on the eligibility for the commission, and would restrict commission members from running for office for at least a decade after redistricting. In addition, the proposed amendment offers a much more coherent set of standards for new maps, including requirements for transparency and participation through public meetings and increased public access to information.

The reform proposal stands in stark contrast to the existing redistricting process in Illinois, which was put in place in the state’s 1970 Constitution. Under this system, redistricting plans are enacted through a standard bill in the legislature, with a commission taking control if the legislature fails to pass a bill. The Commission has been necessary in every redistricting cycle since 1970. Under current rules, the redistricting commission consists of four Democrats, four Republicans, and a chairperson. The chairperson is selected by choosing a name out of a hat containing one Republican and one Democratic nominee. This process leaves redistricting control solely in the hands of one party, determined by a completely random “name-out-of-a-hat” process. It goes without saying that the current system is begging for change..

Change, however, will be hard to come by. Even the groups sponsoring the Illinois Fair Map Amendment concede that there is no way that the Democratic-controlled legislature will approve the amendment. Therefore, they are concentrating their effort on submitting the amendment to voters as an initiative constitutional amendment on the November ballot.

Illinois has a highly restrictive initiative process. Citizens may only adopt initiatives that relate to “structural and procedural subjects” contained in Article IV of the Illinois Constitution—the article that defines the legislature’s powers. Under a fair reading of this provision, citizens should be able to remove redistricting from the legislature and shift it to an independent commission, but this issue will likely be tested in court. In general, reformers have had little success invoking the initiative process in the state. For example, in 1994, the Illinois Supreme Court invalidated a proposed initiative that would have imposed term limits on legislators. More generally, since the initiative process was instituted in in Illinois in 1970, only one citizen-initiated amendment has been ever been approved by the people: a 1980 measure reducing the number of representatives in the General Assembly

To reach the ballot, proponents of the initiative will need to collect signatures equaling 8% of the turnout for the last governor’s election sign a petition (the same threshold as California). In Illinois, this would amount to about 280,000 voters. The Fair Map Amendment movement has set its goal at 500,000 signatures.

Much of the language in the proposed redistricting amendment was written by members of the Illinois Reform Commission, an independent advisory group created through executive order by Gov. Pat Quinn following the impeachment of former Gov. Rod Blagoevich. However, since the Illinois Reform Commission issued its report, the legislature has enacted virtually none of its recommendations . The redistricting reform movement represents a opportunity to at least one much-needed change in Illinois.

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