With the 2020 U.S. Census looming, time is short for a group of Illinois lawmakers and activists who want voters to support a new way of drawing the state’s political maps.
One coalition of interest groups proposes no longer allowing politicians to decide the boundaries of districts. Instead, those decisions would be made by a commission that “demographically, politically and geographically” represents the prairie state.
Current law allows the General Assembly to draw, and the governor to approve, political districts that are “compact, contiguous and substantially equal in population.” Getting there, however, is often a complicated process that invariably favors the party in power.
A constitutional amendment written by Change Illinois — which bills itself as the Coalition for Honest and New Government Ethics — would change that. The group has been working since 2012 to get a redistricting measure on the ballot.
“I think politicians willingly changing the law so they give up authority on this issue would restore some public trust and integrity in this process, and show that they can be full-time legislators, as opposed to drawing maps to ensure a certain electoral outcome,” said Jeff Raines, communications and engagement director for Change Illinois.
The group’s twin measures instead place map-drawing under the purview of the state Supreme Court. The chief justice and most senior justice “who is not elected from the same political party” would together select 16 citizens to form a commission — seven Democrats, seven Republicans and two independents.
All the group’s actions are meant to be transparent — documents, meetings and materials would be available to the public, and the proposal mandates at least 30 public hearings.
Once the commission produces a map, it must also publish a compliance report specifically explaining how the finished product adheres to federal and state law.
The proposal is sponsored by Julie Morrison, a Democrat from Deerfield, in the Senate and Ryan Spain, a Republican from Peoria, in the House. It’s almost identical to one the same sponsors introduced in the previous legislative session.
“I believe our state is best served by an independent redistricting commission that sets aside partisan affiliation and the wishes of the incumbents to do what is best for the people of this state,” Morrison said in a news release. “The voters who sent us to Springfield expect us to govern on their behalf, not adhere to partisan brinkmanship.”
One of the concerns CHANGE Illinois addressed was the rate of pay for each. In the former iteration, members would get $300 per day, which one lawmaker said could stick the state with a large bill. Now, each member would be paid $37.50 per hour of work.
A glaring hurdle created by this effort is that it would require state Supreme Court justices to have political affiliations, which would require a constitutional change.
Raines said CHANGE Illinois never approached representatives from the state’s highest court about whether they would be interested in assuming the responsibility of overseeing Illinois’ redistricting process every 10 years, but assigning the role to that branch of government makes the most sense.
“Typically, of the three branches of government, we in this country believe that the judicial branch is the least partisan, so that’s why we’re looking to them to do this,” Raines said.
The redistricting revamp would require a constitutional amendment, which carries a high burden of approval to be successful. Both chambers of the General Assembly must give their support by a three-fifths majority before it can go to voters. Then, 60 percent approval by voters is needed.
When this proposal was introduced in the previous session, it had wide support from lawmakers in both chambers on both sides of the aisle. But it began making its way through the legislative process only about two weeks before the deadline to appear on the ballot. That gave legislators some measure of political cover.
And Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker plays no official role in the constitutional amendment process. Although his office did not respond to a request for comment about whether he would support Change Illinois’ proposal, he said during a news conference last week that he would veto an unfairly-drawn map.
The Republican caucuses in both chambers favor a change in how Illinois draws political maps, although the House proposed its own plan. Because the party has a superminority — down 21 seats in the Senate and 30 seats in the House — its members will not have much of a say in how the districts are drawn.
The constitutionally-set deadline for one of these proposals, often referred to in the Capitol as “Fair Maps” plans, to be successful is the beginning of May 2020. That would give the General Assembly six months to approve a redistricting amendment before it would go on the ballot in November 2020.