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Editorial: Give more power to every voter, of every color and ethnicity

From left, Patrick Brady, William Daley and Dennis FitzSimons of Independent Maps, a non-partisan statewide coalition, met with the Sun-Times Editorial Board Tuesday on the start of a campaign to win voter approval of a state constitutional amendment creating a non-partisan independent commission responsible for drawing Illinois General Assembly districts. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

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When voters in the Chicago area go to the polls two weeks from now, they will find this pathetic reality:

* In only five state Senate races is there a real contest, meaning two or more candidates are running. In 47 other state Senate races, there is no contest, with a single candidate running unopposed, or with nobody running at all.

* In only 12 state House races is there a contest. In another 142 House races, there again is no contest at all, with just one name or no name on the ballot.

Why bother to run when you’ve already lost?

And why bother to vote when your vote counts for nothing?

But that’s how it works in Illinois, where a handful of powerful politicians — looking out for themselves and not you — draw up legislative district boundaries every ten years in such a way as to virtually guarantee the outcome in dozens of races in general elections. Many districts are drawn to overwhelmingly favor a Democratic candidate. Other districts are drawn to overwhelmingly favor a Republican. As the old saying goes, the politicians choose their voters.

EDITORIAL

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The game is fixed, which is why good government groups, supported by most editorial boards, have been hammering away for years for a better way to draw the boundaries of legislative districts — and this year they just might finally pull it off. A civic-minded group called Independent Maps is circulating petitions to put on the November ballot an excellent constitutional amendment that would take the power to redraw districts out of the hands of the self-serving politicians.

If you want your vote to shout, not whine, you should love this.

But now this lofty goal — a little more democracy, please — is under fire from critics pushing another indisputably worthy goal, the need to protect the legitimate voting strength of minority groups. The critics, who call themselves the People’s Map coalition, say they fear that changing the way district boundaries are drawn could dilute the collective voting power of minorities.

So lets’ be clear: It would not. On the contrary, the Independent Map process would strongly factor in and protect the voting rights of minority groups. The whole point of changing the process by which legislative maps are drawn is to enhance the power of all voters, of every color, religion and ethnicity. It is only the party bosses, folks like House Speaker Mike Madigan, who have real reason to worry.

Chief among the critics is People’s Map Chairman John T. Hooker, who also is chairman of the CHA and a retired ComEd vice president. In an open letter, Hooker called the Independent Map effort to end legislative district gerrymandering “a political ploy to hurt minorities and middle-class families throughout Illinois.” Madigan has been circulating Hooker’s letter.

We could not disagree more.

The proposed amendment includes strong language spelling out that minority representation would not and could not be diluted. U.S. Supreme Court decisions require such protections, which the designers of the new mapping process were nonetheless eager to include. The surest way to see this reform end up in court would be to do anything that might reduce minority representation. The amendment specifically incorporates minority protection principles laid down by the NAACP.

Moreover, Arizona and California — two states that have created independent map-drawing commissions similar to the one proposed for Illinois — have seen the number of minority legislators increase since the new maps went into effect. In California, the number of both African-American and Latino legislators went up. In the Arizona House of Representatives, the number of Latino legislators nearly doubled. That’s solid evidence that minority representation would not be diluted in Illinois.

The proposed constitutional amendment has a long way to go before it becomes law.

Once all the petitions are turned in — the deadline is May — opponents almost certainly will challenge the signatures, hoping to torpedo the effort.

If the petitions survive a challenge, the amendment probably will be challenged in court. That’s where a similar effort two years ago foundered, when Cook County Judge Mary Mikva found the amendment as then worded violated the state Constitution.

If the proposal survives the petition challenge and the court case, it will go to the voters. But to pass, it will need 60 percent of the vote.

Don’t be fooled. When the time comes, vote to take lopsided political power out of the hands of party bosses and put it where it belongs — in your hands.

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