Editorial: How gerrymandering has robbed you of a real vote

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Gerrymandering in Illinois has results in many uncontested local elections — and others in which incumbents have only token opposition.
(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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He was a Republican candidate for the Illinois House. We asked him what the state should do, if anything, to better fund the public schools.

“Advertising,” he said.

“Advertising?” we replied. “How so?”

The state, he said, could put ads along roads and the like.

And this, we asked, is the answer to the school funding crisis?

“Well,” he said, “I’m just talking off the top of my head here.”

You and dozens of other candidates, buddy.

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Over a couple of months this fall, the Sun-Times Editorial Board met face-to-face with candidates running in about 50 local elections, from the U.S. Senate down to Cook County Board of Review. If we had charged a dollar every time a candidate talked off the top of his or her head, utterly uninformed, unprepared and clueless, we could have bought a couple of those really expensive tickets to see the Cubs in the World Series. Time and again, we were struck by the disappointing quality of candidates running for local public office.

Maybe it has always been so. These things are hard to measure. Certainly, nobody has ever claimed the Illinois Legislature is gathering of august statesmen and scholars. But we don’t think so.

We think the devastating impact of gerrymandering on legislative districts finally is revealing itself in full. There is no challenger to the incumbent at all in many races — including almost 60 percent of state legislative races — and the average caliber of challengers in contested races is, to be kind, not impressive. Better qualified people are not running because they know they can’t win. And even many incumbents, under no pressure to do a good job because they have no fear of being voted out of a “safe” seat, strike us as increasingly mediocre. Party sheep, really.

Gerrymandering is the art, honed to a science by Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, of drawing the borders of legislative districts to favor one political party or another. As the saying going, the politicians pick their voters instead of the other way around.

Good government groups have worked for decades to end the practice, but to no avail. In September, the Illinois Supreme Court knocked the most recent proposed anti-gerrymandering constitutional amendment off the Nov. 8 ballot. But judging by what we saw during two months of endorsement interviews, it would be a tragedy if the reformers gave up the fight. Gerrymandering is proving the ruin of healthy competitive elections in Illinois.

Consider the 1st Congressional District, drawn in such a way that Democrat Bobby Rush never has to worry about a serious Republican threat. Instead, his Republican challenger — who enjoys no significant party financial support — is retired special education teacher August O’Neill Deuser, who proposes cutting income taxes to a flat 1 percent and chopping discretionary federal spending by half. These are not credible ideas.

Or consider the 5th Congressional District, also a lock by design for Democrats, where incumbent Mike Quigley faces only nominal opposition from Republican businessman Vince Kolber, who has never held public office. Kolber raved to us about Donald Trump, the man who refuses to disclose his income taxes. He said Trump is “more personally transparent” than any other politician or candidate.

Another candidate, a state House wannabe, offered replies of a three or four words to every question on our questionnaire and was no more thoughtful when we talked. Do you agree that large cuts in higher education are necessary? Answer: “Yes.” How should the state’s school funding formula be changed? Answer: “Incorporate opportunity scholarships.”

Yet another state House candidate, when asked his thoughts on state school funding, railed again and again about Common Core education standards, which are voluntary and not a hot issue in Illinois. Common Core, he said, was “the greatest bureaucratic takeover of the hearts and minds of our children to become opinionated as far as good little progressives.” Even if that were true — and it is not — it has nothing to do with school funding, about which he knew nothing.

For all of this, we felt great respect for most of these candidates, including those we have mentioned by name here. They were honorable men and women who cared enough to run. At least they threw their hat in the ring.

But we also felt a growing pity for the voters, who so often are offered no real choices in this fall’s elections. Mike Madigan and his alchemists of gerrymandering have robbed them of that.

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