Illinois Fair Map Amendment could die before appearing on ballot

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Illinois state capitol building.
Image: Maksim.

The Fair Map Amendment, a citizen-led initiative in Illinois to reform the state constitution's procedures on legislative redistricting, may not gather enough signatures to be presented before voters during the next election. As of last Friday, organizers have collected only 120,000 of the 279,000 votes needed to bypass the state legislature and have the issue decided on solely by the voters in the November 2 election. 

The current process of redistricting, or redrawing district lines every ten years following the nationwide census, is in the hands of the state legislature, or the General Assembly. The maps are often drawn by party leaders, allowing incumbent legislators to minimize and discourage opposition in their districts and perpetuate the leading party's dominance statewide. 

Election statistics indicate that incumbents are successful in their reelection 98 percent of the time, and that Democrats have dominated legislative elections since they were able to draw the redistricting map in 2001. The Democratic Party has successfully reinforced their dominance through "spoking", which involves extending districts in Chicago — a Democratic stronghold — out into the more Republican-leaning suburbs. In addition to allowing more Chicago residents to become legislators, this method severely weakens the strong Republican presence in the suburbs. Republicans, if given the chance to draw the maps, could overturn this trend by keeping key Republican-leaning suburban and downstate communities intact within their districts. 

The Fair Map Amendment, supported by Republicans and good-government groups such as the League of Women Voters of Illinois, would take the redistricting process out of legislators' hands and instead give that task to an independent, nine-member commission. The amendment would apply to the redistricting of only state legislative districts, not US congressional districts.  The General Assembly would still have to approve the commission's suggested map, however. 

Proponents initially aimed to collect the required signatures by April 1, but their inability to do so forced them to push their deadline to last Friday. Even then, organizers were still unable to meet their goal, and they now have until May 3 to send the necessary paperwork to the Illinois Secretary of State's office. "We're not having so much trouble; it's two weeks before we have to file," says Jan Czarnik, a member of the League of Women Voters. 

Czarnik suggests that the petition low number of signatures is due in part to not having "enough people circulating petitions in such a short amount of time." As Kent Redfield of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois–Springfield commented, "If you've got basically volunteers circulating petitions rather than, say, political parties, people that are normally used to doing this, you're going to have to have a larger margin of error." Another possible setback is that public opinion may not carry as much fervor as for other previously proposed amendments. 

Republicans, who hold the minority in the legislature, have proposed the amendment through more conventional means — via the General Assembly — but have been unsuccessful. Legislators also have considered other ways to reform the redistricting process. A few Republican party leaders' campaign funds have donated cash to the group organizing the petition, and House Minority Leader Tom Cross has asked the governor to call a special session on legislative redistricting. Some Democrats support the amendment, including Sheila Simon, her party's candidate for Lieutenant Governor. 

Other Democrats, however, strongly oppose the proposal. Senator Martin Sandoval from Chicago warns that "Hispanics will not see a proportionate and fair increase in Hispanic-majority districts," and the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund wants assurances that minority rights will not be curtailed. 

This story has updates
See Redistricting reform efforts in Illinois fail for this year, May 1, 2010