Outside the Illinois State Board of Elections was a 36-foot-long file cabinet,
filled with more than 500,000 signatures, each one symbolizing a vote of no
confidence in a rigged political system.
Throughout the state’s history, Illinois politicians have drawn political
boundaries. Leaders have carefully crafted legislative maps to maximize the
chance of success for the incumbent party. This system has led to a lack of
competitive politics, and an equally distressing lack of confidence in state
But 570,000 signatures gathered by the nonpartisan Independent Map coalition
could change all that. For comparison’s sake, that’s as if every person in
Aurora, Rockford, Joliet and Decatur cried out for change. It’s a monumental
But it has been tried before.
Two years ago, associates of Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, the politician
who has benefited most from political control of redistricting, filed a lawsuit
to quash a similar referendum on the subject. It was successful.
A look at how Madigan has played the redistricting game reveals why he’d loathe
allowing citizens a new way forward. His redistricting prowess was best shown in
the 2014 elections. Despite Illinoisans voting for a Republican governor,
Madigan did not lose a single Democratic seat in the Illinois House of
Representatives, maintaining supermajority control.
“Across Illinois you’ve got districts that were created by legislators to help
them remain in office,” said Independent Maps spokesman Jim Bray. “They pick the
voters they want to have elect them.”
Research on Illinois’ partisan redistricting process, conducted by the Paul
Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale,
highlights how the 2011 redistricting process helped pave the way for such a
Democrats were facing tough times in Central Illinois. They knew maintaining one
district covering Springfield, one covering Decatur and one covering rural
counties just south of the two cities would mean a Republican rout.
So they created a new Senate district to splinter Decatur and Springfield by
race, connecting the areas of Springfield and Decatur containing more black
This left Springfield residents in the odd position of having three different
state Senate districts. But it worked for the politicians. Democrats picked up a
Senate seat and a House seat for their efforts.
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Since the U.S. Supreme Court case Shaw v. Reno prohibits drawing
borders “primarily” to create minority districts, Illinois House
Democrats actually argued in federal court that they drew the
district this way for partisan reasons.
Thankfully, the Independent Maps coalition did some tinkering after
Madigan’s challenge to the group’s efforts. Which brings us to the
absurdly long cabinetry.
If successful, the coalition’s referendum would take
redistricting power from politicians and give it to a bipartisan
commission of 11 Illinoisans. The commission would then draw
legislative boundaries every 10 years, following the federal census.
This would mean fewer politically “safe” districts, fewer tortured
shapes and loads more transparency.
But some interest groups contend that changing the status quo could
lead to fewer minority lawmakers in Springfield.
The amendment, however, contains a number of provisions protecting
the voices of minority voters, including the addition of federal
Voting Rights Act provisions to the Illinois Constitution.
“There are a number of strong protections in the amendment that
ensure minority voters will be able to elect a representative of
their choosing,” Bray said.
The current legislative districting system leaves a majority of
Illinoisans without a real choice. Only 40 percent of Illinois’
legislative races in 2014 were contested, meaning 6 in 10 Illinois
lawmakers elected that year got a free pass to the Statehouse.
This level of voter disenfranchisement must be addressed.
Republican or Democrat, political parties shouldn’t be able to rig
the rules of the game. Citizens have made the herculean efforts
necessary to put the redistricting issue to a vote. And many
speculate these efforts will face legal challenges.
But it’s a worthy fight. And one the state’s most powerful
politicians are afraid of losing.
Austin Berg is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute. He wrote
this column for the Illinois News Network, a project of the
Institute. Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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