Now is the time to end gerrymandering in Illinois.
In that first warm glow of a new governor and Legislature, when high ideals stand a chance.
If only for about 10 minutes.
Newly elected Gov. J.B. Pritzker is on record in favor of creating an independent commission to draw legislative maps, removing the process as much as possible from bald partisan politics. Many legislators in both parties also have said they support the idea.
After the Nov. 6 elections, four more states around the country joined the eight that already have their maps drawn by commissions instead of politicians. Illinois should join the pro-democracy club.
Gerrymandering — the practice of politicians drawing legislative maps that favor one political party over another — is nothing but a tool to suppress the will of the voters. Historically in Illinois, both Republicans and Democrats have been guilty of the practice.
Already, Republican lawmakers in Springfield have tossed a bill in the hopper that would replace political gerrymandering with legislative districts drawn by an independent commission. The bill is patterned on a failed citizen initiative for a Fair Maps Amendment that was shot down by the Illinois Supreme Court in 2016.
One of the bill’s co-sponsors, David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, argues that the Legislature has a lot on its plate right now, but that few issues should matter more — and he’s right.
This is about the power of your vote.
Most past efforts to create an independent redistricting commission in Illinois have been citizens’ initiatives. Hundreds of thousands of Illinois voters have signed petitions in favor of the idea, only to see the efforts shot down in the courts.
The alternative, which the new Republican bill would do, is for the Legislature to do the job itself. Like the most recent citizen-driven effort, the Republican bill would reform the mapping process for state legislative districts but not congressional districts.
Once the hard work of negotiating begins, you can be sure Democrats and Republicans in Springfield will have very different ideas about what constitutes “fairness.” One obvious problem, for example, is that supposedly neutral-sounding language in the Republican bill places an emphasis on municipal boundaries when drawing a “fair” map. The effect of that could be to dilute the voting strength of minorities living in Chicago.
The Legislature must act by April of next year to get their finished product on the ballot in November of that year. If not, it will be too late to create an independent commission before a new legislative maps are drawn after the 2020 Census.
Gerrymandering has been used to increasingly powerful effects around the country, most often in other states by Republicans trying to hang on to power as their voting base shrinks. But in Illinois over the last couple of decades, the abusing party has been the Democrats, led most notably by House Speaker Michael J. Madigan.
We know we’re asking Madigan and his pals — as well as the new governor — to behave nobly, to put democracy above partisan self-interest. And we know Republican legislatures, such as Wisconsin, have been anything but noble. They have worked overtime to skew election results through gerrymandering and other means.
But what’s right is right. It’s that simple.
The makeup of the Illinois Legislature — and of every state legislature — should reflect the will of the voters, not party bosses.
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