At first blush, it may have seemed like a rare moment of bipartisanship at the Illinois Capitol: Democratic President Barack Obama called for changes to a process for drawing political maps that too often favors one party, bringing Republican lawmakers to their feet.
“In America, politicians should not pick their voters; voters should pick their politicians,” Obama said during last week’s speech in Springfield, echoing comments from his final State of the Union address.
But Illinois’ redistricting process is shaping up to be one of the biggest battles of 2016, as a bipartisan group of supporters and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner push to put a measure on the November ballot and opponents, including some top Democrats, argue it would “devastate the voices of minority communities.”
Here’s a closer look at the issue:
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In Illinois and many other states, the political party in power controls the once-a-decade process of drawing legislative and congressional district boundaries. That often leads to gerrymandering — or what Obama described as congressional districts “shaped like earmuffs or spaghetti” — so that the party in charge will win more seats, even if they win fewer votes.
It’s a particularly sore point for Illinois’ Republican legislators, whose districts were drawn by Democrats after the 2010 census. That made it even tougher for them to pick up seats in the heavily Democratic Legislature.
As Obama noted, both parties play the game. The party out of power tends to support changes to the map-drawing process, while the majority party opposes it.
Illinois is no different.
In 2014, then-candidate Rauner backed an effort to allow voters to amend the Illinois Constitution to change the state’s redistricting process. An attorney for Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, representing several minority voters, filed a lawsuit arguing the changes were unconstitutional. (Madigan himself described the effort as “Republican politics”).
Judges in Cook County agreed, keeping the measure off the November ballot.
A new group known as Independent Maps announced last year it would try again, saying it learned from the previous legal battle and is confident that its latest proposal will withstand a court challenge. The group has gathered about 500,000 of the roughly 600,000 petition signatures it hopes to collect by the end of April to get the measure on the ballot.
The group says it’s not a partisan effort. Among its board of directors are high-profile members of both parties, including Obama’s former White House chief of staff, Bill Daley, Republican former Gov. Jim Edgar and Latino Policy Forum director Sylvia Puente.
While Rauner often promotes the effort in speeches, he and the group say he’s not involved in this year’s attempt. Several of his top donors, however, are helping fund the initiative.
Rather than let the majority party control the process, the Independent Map Amendment would create an 11-member commission, made up of members representing different geographic areas and demographic groups. It would require 7 commissioners — including at least two Republicans and two Democrats — to approve a map.
The commission members would be selected by a review panel chosen randomly from a pool of registered voters who adhere to “standards of ethical conduct.”
Some Democrats and minority voters — including several who were part of the 2014 lawsuit — are still expressing concern, though.
They’ve formed a group known as People’s Map to oppose the initiative. According to documents filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections, Madigan lawyer Michael Kasper also is representing the group.
Among its members are prominent Democrats such as Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis and developer Elzie Higginbottom. The chairman is John T. Hooker, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s pick to head the Chicago Housing Authority.
Hooker said last week that he has great respect for Obama, but that he felt the president’s comments “were very general in nature and were not intended to be an endorsement of the misguided efforts to change redistricting here in Illinois.”
“The so-called ‘reforms’ proposed in Illinois will devastate the voices of minority communities and minority voters,” he said.
Hooker said that under the proposal, there’s no way to ensure minorities will be represented on the commission. He also said there’s no guarantee minority communities would be “protected” — essentially kept together in the same district in numbers large enough to influence a vote. That would lead to less minority representation in the Legislature, Hooker said.
Independent Maps spokesman Jim Bray denied Hooker’s claims. He said the proposed amendment requires diversity on the commission and states that legislative districts “shall not dilute or diminish the ability of a racial or language minority community to elect the candidates of its choice.”
Bray also said Obama’s push for change “deflates” opponents’ arguments.
“I don’t think President Obama would be out advocating these kinds of redistricting reforms if they reduced minority representation,” he said.