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Andy Shaw: Referendum would give you vote vs. gerrymandering

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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Last Tuesday’s primary election had enough twists, turns, fits, fights and intrigue to attract a record 3.3 million Illinois voters, 400,000 more than ’08, when homegrown presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton duked it out.

Hillary was back again this year, burning the Bern. Trump was a headliner, not just a high-rise logo. Madigan routed Rauner in their mega-money proxy battles. Anita Alvarez withered under the weight of the Laquan McDonald shooting. And Duckworth zapped Zopp for the U.S. Senate nomination.

As engaging as a primary can be, with one troubling exception most people missed: 90 percent of 316 Democratic and Republican races for the state Legislature had only one candidate, running unopposed, or no candidate at all.

OPINION

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As a result, 87 General Assembly seats — almost half — were decided in the primary, not in traditional two-party November showdowns.

That, sadly, is a byproduct of “gerrymandering” — the “art” of creating legislative districts that protect incumbents and discourage potential challengers from running.

It works this way: If one party controls the House, Senate and governor’s office after a decennial census, that party gets to draw new district boundaries.

If neither party controls all three, a lottery drawing determines the mapmakers.

Either way, it produces cockamamie cartographic caricatures that frequently protect legislative majorities, or super-majorities, for the next decade.

“Rigged” districts are packed with voters from one party and represented by well-funded incumbents, which discourages competition and drives down turnout in election years that don’t feature compelling, higher-visibility races.

Partisanship is appropriately baked into the political process, but computers and data analysis enable parties to fine-tune legislative maps with surgical precision.

Controlling the mapmaking, as Democrats did in 2000 and 2010, and Republicans in 1990, also allows legislative leaders to reward friends, punish enemies and keep their troops in line.

In Springfield, that’s contributed to decades of dysfunction.

Unfortunately, frustrated voters can’t effectively protest at the ballot box because they have so few choices.

It’s a “Catch 22” that invites civic disengagement and undermines democracy, and it has to change.

Thankfully, help is on the way.

You may have an opportunity, in November, to vote for a political sea change — fundamental redistricting reform.

Supporters of the nonpartisan Independent Map Amendment have collected hundreds of thousands of signatures in an effort to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that, if passed, would shift remapping from political parties to an independent commission.

The commission’s challenge would be to create population-based, geographically sensible districts — not partisan, jerry-rigged enclaves — while maintaining or increasing minority representation.

This is the third attempt in recent years to reform redistricting, and it has the best chance of surviving legal and petition challenges.

After a long deliberative process the Better Government Association’s board of directors voted earlier this month to join the campaign.

We’re all in.

Realistically, it’s not a panacea — it won’t completely eliminate partisanship or stop politicians from trying to influence the mapmaking process, and some minority leaders aren’t drinking the Kool Aid.

But the Independent Map Amendment may be our best hope for a process that serves people and not just political interests — where winners of competitive legislative races are actually more responsive to their constituents than to party bosses.

That would be refreshing, and a huge game-changer.

And who knows — future primary elections might be even more engaging than last Tuesday’s.

Andy Shaw is president & CEO of the Better Government Association

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

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