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

Brown: Charting better course in drawing legislative maps worth a try

SHARE Brown: Charting better course in drawing legislative maps worth a try
SHARE Brown: Charting better course in drawing legislative maps worth a try

Pretty much anybody who spends any serious time around Illinois politics agrees the one surefire way to shake up the status quo would be to change the way state legislative district boundaries are drawn.

As many before me have noted, the current system that puts that power in the hands of state legislators and the governor works to the benefit of entrenched interests.

In this upside down arrangement, the people’s representatives pick their voters instead of the other way around.


The incumbent protection maps that result from that process leave lawmakers with little opposition and voters with few choices. Most state legislative candidates ran unopposed last November.

Redraw the boundaries without any consideration to partisan advantage or incumbency, the theory goes, and the entire state Legislature becomes a competitive battleground where voters can make a real difference.

And good government will reign forevermore.

Sorry. Don’t mind me. I really do think it’s worth a try.

It’s just that years of doing this make me pessimistic that structural changes to government will make much of a lasting improvement after the dust settles if the citizenry doesn’t get engaged.

Improved civic engagement is actually one of the expectations of a group that wants to take the map-drawing power away from state lawmakers and give it to an independent commission.

The group, Independent Maps, launched a new effort Tuesday to put a constitutional effort before voters at the November 2016 elections.

Independent Maps says it has learned from the mistakes of a separate effort in 2014 that failed to make it on the ballot when a Cook County judge ruled the proposed amendment was legally flawed.

That ruling from Circuit Judge Mary Mikva gave hope to the would-be reformers when she specifically noted that “a differently drafted redistricting initiative could be valid.”

Dennis FitzSimons, chairman of Independent Maps, said the organization used Mikva’s guidance to recraft its amendment, eliminating wording she found problematic.

FitzSimons is a former Tribune Company chairman and CEO who currently chairs the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

Among the other prominent individuals backing the effort are former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley, former Gov. Jim Edgar and Christie Hefner, a director of the left-leaning Center for American Progress Fund.

Also showing support were Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Latino Policy Forum, and Ruth Greenwood, a staff attorney at the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Puente and Greenwood are significant because the amendment is expected to face opposition on the basis that changing the remap system could be harmful to minority representation in the Legislature.

Indeed, Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund lawyer Jorge Sanchez said he has reservations about the latest amendment, just as he did the 2014 effort.

“I’m not necessarily convinced this helps minority communities,” said Sanchez, whose organization has long been a prominent player in redistricting efforts.

Sanchez acknowledges the shortcoming of the current system and agrees that the redrawn amendment has a better chance of standing up in court.

But he seems to think Latino voters in particular would be better served by sticking with the current political system.

If prominent African-American groups also signal their misgivings, then what seems like a can’t miss proposition at the polls could run into complications.

The Chicago Urban League, which last year notably withheld its support for the amendment, said it is in favor of depoliticizing the redistricting process but needs to review the new proposal, a spokesman said.

No matter what those groups say, you can expect Illinois Democrats, who currently control both chambers of the Legislature, to dig in against the commission proposal.

There will be those who don’t want to do anything right now that might help new Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner tip the balance of power away from the Democrats, just as there will be those who think this is a great way to mess with House Speaker Madigan.

A redistricting commission wouldn’t even be appointed until 2021, with its first map to take effect the following year.

It would be extremely shortsighted to judge long-term structural changes on the basis of getting back at individual personalities, who may or may not still be in power then.

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