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Editorial: You can make voters the winners in Illinois elections

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We won’t know how many candidates are running in the next state elections until filing closes on Nov. 30.

But we know what happened two years ago: In almost 60 percent of the races throughout the state, there was just one candidate.

Was that the kind of democracy the Framers had in mind when they drew up the Constitution? We’re guessing no.

Fortunately, voters can do something about this. The strongest effort yet is underway in Illinois to gather signatures on petitions to put a constitutional amendment on the November 2016 ballot to draw the state’s legislative boundaries in a more voter-friendly way. Called the Independent Maps coalition, it is fighting the good fight early, has decent funding and is led by some big names, including former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley and former Tribune Co. CEO Dennis FitzSimons.

The coalition is two-thirds of the way toward its goal of 600,000 signatures, riding a wave of support for such reforms locally and nationally. If you want your vote to count for more, join them.

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Under the current rules, political parties draw the maps a after each 10-year national Census, and they do it to favor themselves, not the public. The current maps were drawn by Democrats, who artfully placed boundaries in such a way as to elect the maximum number of Democrats, to no one’s surprise. The Republicans do the same, when they get the chance.

Gerrymandered maps cram as many of the opposition party’s voters into as few districts as possible. The rest of the opposition party’s voters are spread across as many districts as possible, so they are nowhere near a majority.

Gerrymandering has been around as long as the Republic, but in recent years powerful computers and access to huge amounts of online data have made it much more scientific — and effective.

The problem with such gerrymandering, besides its fundamentally undemocratic nature, is that the minority party in many districts has such a small base that no challenger wants to run. That’s why so many ballots in Illinois come Election Day have just a single name next to the instruction, “Vote for one.” How many good candidates — people who would have made excellent leaders — never bothered to enter the political arena because they had no chance to win?

Drawing fairer maps is an idea catching on around the country. Earlier this month, Ohio voters approved by a landslide an anti-gerrymandering constitutional amendment. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in a case involving Arizona and California, upheld the concept that the power to draw legislative boundaries could be taken out of the hands of pols and given to independent commissions. In Colorado this month, two former governors — one a Democrat, the other a Republican — launched a campaign there to reform how legislative districts are drawn.

“It’s just not right that the political parties use redistricting to try to gain unfair advantages, and both parties have done it,” former Colorado Secretary of State Bernie Buescher said.

In Illinois, the bipartisan Independent Maps coalition aims to create a commission with up to four Democrats, four Republicans and at least three people not aligned with either party. The Illinois auditor general, selected by legislators from both parties, would pick most members of the new commission from a panel of applicants. Seven votes would be needed to draw new maps. Deadlocks would be broken by a special commissioner named by the ranking Democrat and Republican Illinois Supreme Court justices.

To get the idea on the 2016 ballot, amendment supporters need 290,216 valid signatures on petitions by May. They already have more than 400,000, but want 600,000 to be sure of surviving challenges to the petitions. Things seem to be on a roll. Just last week, the Independent Maps coalition hired Hilltop Public Solutions as campaign consultant and Dave Mellet as campaign manager.

Don’t let all that progress lull you into complacency. Good-government groups have been calling for this reform for decades, without success. In recent years, two highly touted earlier efforts to get a remap reform amendment on the ballot fell short. Don’t let it happen again.

Sign a petition for independent maps in Illinois. Go it one better and circulate a petition.

For more information, go to: www.MapAmendment.org.

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