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Opinion: Allowing redistricting was a goal of 1970 convention

One hundred and sixteen delegates are sworn in at the opening of the Illinois Constitution Convention, in 1969 in the Illinois House chambers. Chef Justice Robert Underwood (center podium) swore in the delegates. Sun-Times Library files

The Independent Map constitutional amendment being contested in the Illinois Supreme Court presents the first opportunity ever for Illinois citizens to have their state legislative districts fairly apportioned without the partisan self-interests of legislators controlling the process.
OPINION
For almost 200 years, partisan “gerrymandered” districts have distorted Illinois voters’ will.  In 1858, following the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, Democrat Stephen Douglas was elected by the gerrymandered General Assembly, which at that time elected Ssenators, despite the fact that Abraham Lincoln’s new Republican Party received more popular votes statewide in the General Assembly elections.  In the 158 years since, hundreds of partisan-drawn legislative districts have served members’ interests ahead of the public’s.

The 1970 Constitutional Convention gave voters a way to change that practice. The convention, for the first time, gave citizens the power to propose constitutional amendments to the article governing the legislative branch. I was there.  I was an elected delegate to the convention from Evanston.

The proposal for a citizens’ initiative was presented to the full convention by the legislative committee, which had thoroughly vetted the proposition in public hearings and deliberations.  The committee spokesman explained that the process was to be available only for very important matters that concerned “the procedure or makeup of the legislature itself.”  He emphasized specifically that such matters included apportionment and cumulative voting.

The proposal was warmly received and approved by a substantial majority of delegates who voted on the matter.  As could be expected, it was vigorously opposed by a minority of delegates, among them legislative leaders, former legislators, and their allies.  The new procedure was enthusiastically endorsed in the lead-up to the ratification vote and approved as part of the statewide vote approving the new constitution.

The 1970 Constitutional Convention intended the initiative provision to open up the redistricting process and provide a way for citizens to act directly in proposing a specific constitutional amendment for voters’ ratification.  It was not to be invoked lightly but only after a very large number of petitioners supported the amendment.  In the present case, well over half a million registered voters have signed the initiative provision.

The citizen initiative process has been used before.  Ten years after the 1970 constitution went into effect, a citizen-proposed amendment to reduce the size of the Illinois House and eliminate cumulative voting and multi-member legislative districts was also vigorously fought by self-interested legislators.  A million vote majority approved it at the 1980 general election.

Redistricting is at least as important a matter.  The Illinois Supreme Court should reject the numerous technical objections conjured up against this initiative by self-interested advocates and allow the voters to give the proposal an up or down vote in November.

Frank Cicero Jr., of Evanston, is an attorney at Kirkland & Ellis LLP and was a delegate to Illinois’ 1970 Constitutional Convention.