When we draw new lines for legislative districts in Illinois, everybody will be at the table

The only way to truly reflect the great diversity of Illinois is to give a megaphone to those who have been silenced.

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“Inclusion will be at the center of these proceedings,” writes Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, “and for the first time, any citizen who wishes to propose a new legislative map will be able to construct one online.”

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Thirty years ago, my hometown of Oak Park was diced up six ways to Sunday in a winner-takes-all redistricting process that left the community feeling disenfranchised and diluted.

Our singular, strong voice in Springfield was gone, replaced by a half-dozen legislative districts that, for the next decade, would send us scurrying in different directions to be heard.

Twenty years ago, it looked like we were destined to continue the same fate. I helped lead the fight against such an outcome, pushing back against any plan that would have sacrificed the best interests of our community in favor of unseen political forces. Anywhere two or more people gathered to talk about redistricting, we showed up to be heard. Our efforts worked and a new district was created, encompassing most of Oak Park as well as parts of Chicago’s West Side and other near western suburbs.

We had won a seat at the table.

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I am honored to now serve the people of Oak Park in the Senate and humbled to lead the chamber as president. So it is fitting that the lessons learned during that experience many years ago will inform how the Senate approaches the redistricting process this year. We will be guided by the knowledge that the best way to guarantee fairness is to create more room at the table, and the understanding that the only way to truly reflect the great diversity of Illinois is to give a megaphone to those who have been silenced.

Led by Sen. Omar Aquino, who will chair the Senate Redistricting Committee, and Sen. Elgie Sims, who will serve as vice-chair, the Senate will conduct as many as two dozen regional hearings in the coming weeks, allowing for input from stakeholders in all of Illinois’ 102 counties.

Aquino and Sims are steadfast public servants who have long worked to lift the voices of their communities, always pushing for equity, inclusion and justice. I know they will continue to embrace those principles throughout this process, as will other members of this diverse committee who span the ethnic and geographic breadth and depth of Illinois.

Inclusion will be at the center of these proceedings, and for the first time in Illinois, any citizen who wishes to propose a new legislative map will be able to construct one online.

Though this year presents unique challenges, from navigating public meetings during a global pandemic to delays in data from the U.S Census Bureau, we will not shy away from our constitutional duty to ensure that communities receive fair and equal representation. Black, Latinx, Asian and other minority communities have been marginalized and silenced for far too long, left to pay the ultimate price.

We must also embrace the wide geographic diversity of our state, unified by the richness wrought from our varied experiences.

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We are dedicated to fulfilling our responsibility to approve a new map through a system that gives the people of Illinois a strong say in the process. Failure to meet deadlines would upend the democratic process and turn map-making over to a small commission of appointed political insiders and, as history has shown, ultimately yield a more partisan result. That would be a disservice to our citizens and counter to everyone’s stated goals.

As I recall my fight to win fair representation for Oak Park all those years ago, I can think of no more frustrating outcome than to have the will of my community ignored in favor of backroom political deals. But that is what is at stake for communities across Illinois if legislators do not forge ahead in a deliberate manner, placing people ahead of politics.

We must not let history repeat itself. We must make room at the table.

Illinois Senate President Don Harmon is a Democrat from Oak Park.

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