It sure seemed like an election last November, when Illinois voters went to the polls to cast their ballots, and in some respects, it was.
But most Illinoisans really had no chance to affect state public policy with their votes because the elections for state House and Senate members were legally rigged to produce predetermined results.
Not familiar with the phrase "legally rigged"? It's somewhat akin to another phrase that describes how political business is done in this state — "honest graft."
It means operating within rules that are so broad that breaking them makes no sense. Who needs dishonest graft when the state's ethical rules allow honest graft? Who needs to steal an election when it's legal to rig it in advance?
Are most state legislative elections in Illinois fixed in advance? You bet.
Last November, a full slate of 59 state Senate seats and 118 state House seats were, at least theoretically, up for election.
But political pros in the Democratic and Republican parties estimated that only 13 to 16 of the 59 Senate seats and roughly 20 of the 118 House seats offered voters a competitive choice. Nearly 60 percent of the races were uncontested. In many others, like in Champaign-Urbana, where Democratic state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson won another term, there was only token opposition.
That was no accident. In fact, foreordained results were the specific goal of House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton. They each were able to win supermajorities in their respective chambers by drawing House and Senate legislative boundary lines to favor their party's candidates, in this case the Democratic Party.
Redistricting is a process that occurs every 10 years following the completion of the United States Census. It is intended to take shifts in population into account and assure the state and federal legislative districts are of roughly equal size. New maps that became effective in Illinois in the 2012 election will remain in place until they are redrawn for the 2022 election.
But politicians have hijacked the process by drawing their own districts and selecting their own constituents. That's why good government groups plan to challenge the status quo by trying to persuade voters to amend the state constitution.
"If you want to reform Illinois politics, this is the only game in town," said David Yepsen, the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
A coalition of good government groups operating under the umbrella of CHANGEIllinois has been making plans to launch a petition drive aimed at passing a constitutional amendment that would strip the governor and state legislators of redistricting authority and put it under the control of a nonpartisan commission.
"We're moving forward very quickly," said CHANGEIllinois President Ryan Blitstein.
The multistep process poses a variety of challenges, including finalizing the wording of the proposed amendment, collecting hundreds of thousands of petition signatures, warding off petition and legal challenges from opponents, and, finally, waging a campaign that educates and persuades voters about the need for change.
This proposal stands on the shoulders of a similar effort two years ago that was waged by the state's League of Women Voters. The league, however, got a late start and did not come close to collecting the 300,000 petition signatures needed to put the issue on the ballot.
CHANGEIllinois is hoping that getting an earlier start and throwing greater resources into the effort will allow it to succeed where the league failed.
Only a handful of states, including Iowa, allow redistricting by a nonpartisan commission. Most, like Illinois, permit the majority party in the Legislature to draw the maps. The result, naturally, is that gerrymandering — the drawing of political map to favor one party or the other — is common.
Last year, while Republicans were complaining that Democratic map drawers in Illinois were unfair, Democrats were making similar complaints about map-drawing Republicans in Wisconsin. Indeed, the only thing bipartisan about party map drawing is that both Democrats and Republicans love to draw their own maps and hate it when the other party wins the right to do so.
There's no question that gerrymandering serves the narrow interests of party leaders and incumbents well. But it does little for voters who often see themselves denied a choice at election time. That's why CHANGEIllinois supporters think they can win if it can get the issue on the ballot.
Public opinion polls affirm that view.
CHANGEIllinois has commissioned polls that show 68 percent of state voters favor a "mapping process free of political maneuvering" and 66 percent favor "ending a system that protects incumbents."
So far, the amendment process has yet to go public. CHANGEIllinois held five public hearings across the state to hear the ideas and amendment language citizens proposed. In the coming months, it will finalize the language and solicit an army of signature gatherers.
Blitstein said CHANGEIllinois needs to gather at least 300,000 signature by the state's May 4, 2014, deadline and would like to have at least twice that many to withstand petition challenges.
Yepsen said CHANGEIllinois also can expect opponents to file a lawsuit that alleges the proposed change is not a legally permissible amendment under the Illinois Constitution.
Assuming the proposal survives various challenges and is approved by voters, it would not be implemented until the redistricting process starts anew in 2021.
But change dies hard in a state as corrupt as Illinois. The pols have had their way for so long because they've convinced many voters that the Illinois way is the only way and resistance is futile.
Although supportive of the Fair Map plan, Yepsen said "it's going to be very difficult to pass."
Then again, if the public is as disgusted with state government as polls indicate, the time might be ripe for revolutionary reform. Flitstein said he believes voters "want to take action" and that Fair Map is an idea whose time has come.
"Expect in the coming months to hear a lot about it," he said.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 351-5369.