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Editor's Note: Redistricting Process Needs Transparency

Dana Heupel
NPR Illinois

It’s as certain as the sunrise that every 10 years, both parties in the Illinois General Assembly will use every tool at their disposal to try to gain any advantage in scribing new district maps for state lawmakers and U.S. representatives.

This year, for the first time since the 1970 Constitution was enacted, Democrats can single-handedly chart the political waters for the next 10 years because they control the Illinois House, Senate and governor’s office.

Republicans and reformers have tried but mostly failed in their efforts to modify the redistricting process that will happen later this year, after detailed U.S. Census figures are released. Now, the most they can hope for is that it will be transparent — that the public will have some say in laying the lines that will affect who represents them in the legislature and Congress for the next decade.

Unfortunately, though, they will have to rely on the good will, such as it is, of Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan and Democratic Senate President John Cullerton to ensure transparency because public involvement isn’t clearly defined in recent legislation concerning redistricting.

In the waning days of the last General Assembly’s two-year session, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 3976, which sets out two procedures for dealing with the legislative remapping process. 

The first would allow mapmakers to create districts that concentrate racial or language minorities to allow them more say in who represents them. The second would mandate at least four public hearings in separate geographic areas of the state to gather testimony from the public before the new maps are drawn. As of this writing, the bill rests with Gov. Pat Quinn, awaiting his signature or veto.

The provision to ensure minority representation isn’t highly controversial: Democratic lawmakers and redistricting reform groups generally support it, as do some Republicans, especially those in the Senate. But the transparency provision is another matter, with reformers and Republicans howling that it doesn’t guarantee more hearings than four, and that it doesn’t provide for public input after the maps are drawn but before they are approved.

The sponsors of the legislation, Sen. Kwame Raoul and Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, both Democrats from Chicago, have tried to calm the critics by repeating the mantra that four hearings are only the minimum set out in SB 3976.

“It’s not a ceiling at all,” Raoul said after the bill passed both legislative chambers. “I think, inevitably, we’ll have more than four hearings because any legislative remap plan is legislation and will go through the hearing process of the legislature. But it will do so after having had at least four hearings in different parts of the state.”

Currie went further: “This is definitely a floor,” she said during debate in the House. “Ten years ago, there were at least 20 such hearings, and I anticipate that this year, the number would likely be at least as large.”

The sponsors also said “regular, everyday people,” as Raoul called them, will be able to suggest their own district maps. 

“Ten years ago,” Currie said, “there was the opportunity for the citizens of the state to come to a central location, use a computer with census data in it — we supplied the software — so ordinary citizens would have an opportunity to draw a map and share that map with members of the legislature. … I’d be very surprised if we didn’t offer even more opportunities for the citizens to participate directly in the drawing of the representative and senatorial districts.”

Raoul and Currie both dodged questions, though, about allowing public comment after the maps are drawn. And both complained that many of the critics of SB 3976 had voted against or opposed earlier legislation that called for more public hearings.

SB 3976 is actually the third iteration of legislation intended to modify the redistricting process this time around.

The first was the proposed “Fair Map Amendment” to the state Constitution, pushed by a coalition led by the League of Women Voters. It grew out of recommendations from the Illinois Reform Commission, which Quinn created soon after he became governor. 

Among other things, the Fair Map Amendment called for an independent commission to draw the new district maps without favoring either party. It was backed by Republicans and supported by reform groups but failed to emerge from House and Senate committees last spring. Advocates also couldn’t collect the number of signatures needed to get the proposed amendment on the ballot for the November election. 

The next was another constitutional amendment proposed by Raoul and Currie. It would have begun the redistricting process with a joint House-Senate commission appointed by legislative leaders but could eventually have led to each chamber drawing its own map. It called for eight public hearings: four by each chamber. 

That measure passed the Senate with votes along party lines, but it failed in the House when GOP lawmakers contended it would favor the majority party.

Then SB 3976 emerged in the lame-duck legislative session after the November election, much to the dissatisfaction of reform groups.

“There’s no requirement that the public have an opportunity to review and comment on that after the committee approves the plan but before a vote of the full House or Senate,” Whitney Woodward of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform testified during a House committee hearing on SB 3976. “We think that’s troubling because comments of public involvement are needed to look toward future, not retrospective, maps.”

“We feel that the current proposal falls way short,” agrees Brad McMillan, a former member of Quinn’s now-disbanded reform commission who continues to be involved in reform efforts. “We’re urging Gov. Quinn to veto this bill as it currently stands.”

McMillan, executive director of the Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service at Bradley University and a member of the Illinois IssuesAdvisory Board, says not only does the legislation not provide for public hearings after the maps are drawn, “there just isn’t anything to ensure that politics isn’t going to be the No. 1 consideration.”

Along with continuing to advocate for changes in the redistricting process this time around, he says, reformers are considering reviving some version of the Fair Map Amendment to try to enact changes in the system for 10 years from now.

“The flawed system has not been significantly improved in Illinois,” McMillan says, “so I think the reform groups are going to take a serious look at another petition drive in the near future.”

Illinois Issues, March 2011

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