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Don’t let Legislature mess up chance to give voters more muscle

From left, Patrick Brady, William Daley and Dennis FitzSimons of Independent Maps, a non-partisan statewide coalition, met with the Sun-Times Editorial Board last year at 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

One again, the Illinois Legislature seems to be doing its best to confound real democracy — the kind in which your vote matters.

Just as a long-running independent effort is nearing its goal of placing a constitutional amendment in front of voters that could give us a fairer way to draw the boundaries of legislative districts, the Legislature is mucking things up by trotting out alternative — and inferior — plans.



A coalition called Independent Maps is close to getting 600,000 signatures on petitions calling for taking the power to redraw the boundaries of legislative districts every 10 years away from politicians and giving it to an independent commission. That’s far more than the 290,216 signatures the coalition needs by May 8 to put the proposal on the ballot in November.

But on Monday, the House Executive Committee unanimously approved its own proposed constitutional amendment on redistricting. The House version is backed by some Republicans and House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago. The sponsor, Rep. Jack Franks, D-Woodstock, says he introduced it because he is worried the coalition’s proposed amendment might be tossed out by a judge, leaving voters with the highly gerrymandered status quo.

If that’s truly the concern, the Legislature should just wait. The next redistricting won’t take place until after 2020. If the Independent Maps coalition loses in court this summer, the Legislature could put its own amendment on the 2018 ballot — after allowing plenty of time for discussion, instead of rushing something through less than three weeks before the deadline.

Meanwhile, on Thursday the Illinois Senate by a vote of 39-19 passed yet another proposed constitutional amendment on redistricting. The Senate version would give the Legislature a chance to enact its own maps before a commission is even appointed.

Through its carelessness, the Legislature is risking the possibility that two similar amendments could share space on the ballot — both its own and that of the Independent Maps coalition. That could confuse voters and possibly send both versions to defeat. Or maybe both measures pass, authorizing two different sets of new rules at the same time. Where would that leave us? Uncharted territory.

It’s no coincidence that the Legislature — after years of doing nothing — suddenly has its own proposed constitutional amendment just as the Independent Maps coalition is close to getting its version on the ballot.

Maybe this measure is just a way to let House and Senate members go on record in support of a constitutional amendment against gerrymandering, and it won’t actually go anywhere. But we can’t count on that.

Moreover, the House version has a serious flaw. It would have the chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court and the senior justice of the minority party oversee the selection of commissioners.  We already have a trend of politicization and skyrocketing infusions of campaign cash into state supreme courts around the nation. Do we really want to give political interests another reason to try to control the Illinois Supreme Court?

By contrast, the Independent Maps coalition would let an independent commission draw new maps. It’s similar to a system in Arizona that the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld on Wednesday.

Under the current gerrymandered system, which stifles competition, only about a third of the state House and Senate races have more than one name on the ballot for the upcoming November election. Although it’s possible some candidates might be appointed to open slots, this is hardly a system that gives voters real choice.

The Legislature should put its proposed amendments on hold. Illinois has a chance at real reform. Don’t mess it up now.

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