Reformers in Illinois are pushing two bills that would change the way legislative maps are drawn, with the aim of making them less partisan. | AP file photo

Take it from California — we can do more to make every vote count in Illinois

I recently enjoyed spending time with Gil Ontai and Jeanne Raya. He’s an architect from San Diego who votes for Republicans. She runs a family-owned insurance agency in San Gabriel, California, and votes for Democrats. They got along with each other beautifully.

Why should you care about any of this? Ontai and Raya were two of the 14 average voters from the nation’s most populous state who drew maps for California’s assembly, state senate and congressional districts after the last census.

Opinion bug


After California voters narrowly chose to institute an independent citizen redistricting commission, they were among 36,000 voters who applied for the job. The state’s auditor created a panel to review applicants and conduct interviews. The panel eventually chose eight commissioners and then those commissioners chose another six. Five were Democrats, five were Republicans and four were from neither party.

Modeled in many ways after the California process, the Illinois Fair Maps Amendment (SJRCA 4/HJRCA 15) would create a 16-member commission from judicial districts around the state, with seven Democrats, seven Republicans and two independents (plus a tie-breaking independent, if needed.)

Ontai and Raya acknowledged their work was far more daunting than they’d imagined, but they clearly believed it was worth it.

The commissioners participated in 34 public meetings during daytime and nighttime hours at 32 locations in 23 counties all over California, attended by 2,700 residents. Another 20,000 written comments were submitted to them via their We Draw The Lines website.

At one point, so many people were invested in the work that comments were limited to two minutes. Raya recalled watching veteran U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters wait her turn, deliver her comments in the allotted time and be dismissed like everyone else.

Raya and Ontai have traveled to Chicago, Springfield and several other U.S. locations to share their experience. Their job wasn’t easy. After their first attempt at redistricting, they got so much criticism they went back to the drawing board. Their second attempt has stood the test of time and several lawsuits.

Raya, Ontai and their 14 fellow citizens directed the drawing of maps that created six more Latino assembly seats, one new Asian assembly seat, one additional Latino senate seat and one added Latino congressional district. The number of Latino officials doubled overall and there were nine more total opportunities for minority voters in California to select representatives of their choosing than existed when politicians drew the boundaries.

Like the California initiative, Illinois’ Fair Maps Amendment proposal follows the federal Voting Rights Act, which calls for the creation of districts with a majority of minorities, where possible. Both also allow for the creation of districts with less than a majority of minorities, but where there can be enough minority voters to influence the outcome of an election. If instituted here, voters of color could have a greater say in choosing who represents them.

Just as significant, Raya, Ontai and the others helped produce more competitive elections. A peer-reviewed analysis by political scientists found “all the commission’s maps are more competitive than the existing maps.” Partisan change also was found to be “generally modest.”

The political scientists concluded, “The new district boundaries kept more communities together and created more compact districts while at the same time increasing opportunities for minority representation.”

Raya notes favorability ratings for lawmakers in California have risen since citizens drew maps.

Ontai and I listened closely in Springfield as a House Democrat debated with Raya about map contiguity and how it was measured and defined in California. As the lawmaker turned to leave, Ontai spoke up. We can debate metrics and measurements forever, he suggested, but in the end, it’s pointless. What matters is who you believe should draw the maps.

When politicians draw them, self-interest and conflicts of interest are blatant.

The Illinois Fair Maps Amendment has a supermajority of 36 of 59 senators signed on as sponsors, including 19 Republicans and 17 Democrats. It’s supported by minority groups, farmers, business and good government advocates around Illinois.

Is it right that there’s all that support, but Illinois Senate President John Cullerton hasn’t assigned it to a favorable committee to be debated and voted on?

What was done by Ontai, Raya and the other California commissioners ought to be tried here. Illinois politicians shouldn’t meddle in our elections any more than Russians should. We deserve elections we can trust. We deserve to know our votes mean something. Let’s try a citizen redistricting commission.

Madeleine Doubek is executive director of CHANGE Illinois, a nonpartisan nonprofit that leads the Illinois Redistricting Collaborative advocating for an end to gerrymandering and other reforms.

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