Jim Dey: Many obstacles remain for proposed map amendment

Jim Dey: Many obstacles remain for proposed map amendment

Charlotte Hampton's work is done. Rupert Borgmiller's is just beginning.

These two people — one a great-grandmother from Paxton and the other a Springfield bureaucrat — hold separate, but still key, roles, in an effort to amend the Illinois Constitution and uproot the political status quo.

Under current redistricting rules, incumbent legislators of the party in power pick their constituents when they redraw boundary lines for state House and Senate seats. Redistricting is carried out every 10 years to account for growth and shifts in population, but the party in power has historically used that power to redraw geographic boundaries to guarantee itself a majority for a decade.

It's called gerrymandering. Republicans did it in 1991 while Democrats did it in 2001 and 2011. It's an incumbent-protection racket that locks one party into a permanent majority and the other into a permanent minority. Under the current arrangement, 98 percent of incumbents are re-elected, two-thirds running unopposed.

Under the proposed amendment, which must win voter approval, the legislative majority would be stripped of its map-drawing power; it would be reassigned to an independent commission charged with drawing compact, contiguous districts that do not give an advantage to either Democrats or Republicans.

The effort to put the amendment on the November ballot got a big boost last week when the Yes for Independent Maps campaign announced it has collected signatures from nearly 350,000 registered voters, far more than the required 298,400 required to put the issue to a vote.

"I was ecstatic (when I heard the news). I cried," said Hampton, who has been collecting voters' signatures since last fall.

Indeed, on Tuesday, Hampton was collecting additional signatures at the Paxton IGA.

"Tuesday is discount day. So you go there that day to get more people (to sign)," she said.

The legal deadline to submit the petitions to the Illinois State Board of Elections is May 4. That's when Borgsmiller, the executive director of the Illinois State Board of Elections, and his staff will examine the voluminous submissions to see if they pass muster.

"That's just one of the many things we'll be doing after May 4," said Borgsmiller.

The review process is expected to be difficult now that opponents who previously were quiet are making noise. It won't be long before they'll express their opposition in more substantive ways by challenging the validity of the petition signatures, filing a legal challenge to the content of the proposed amendment and — if the issue makes it to the ballot — waging a scorched-earth campaign to defeat it at the polls.

Michael Kolenc, the campaign manager for Yes for Independent Maps, isn't looking forward to a fight, but he's expecting one.

"We're taking power away from people who have it," he said.

But first things first.

Borgsmiller said the election board's review process requires that it first conduct an inventory to determine how many pages there are and how many names they contain. Then the petitions will be scanned into a computer so the number of signatures can be verified. Finally, the board will conduct a random check of 5 percent of the signatures to determine if they are valid. If the first check suggests a problem, a second random check will be conducted.

Based on its findings, the elections board staff will recommend whether the amendment should be placed on the ballot to the eight-member elections board.

Although Yes for Independent Maps announced last week that it had nearly 350,000 signatures, Dolenc said collection continues and estimated that he'll submit "north of 450,000 signatures" to the elections board.

If that is the case, challenging the signatures' validity could be daunting.

But Steve Brown, a spokesman for Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, expressed skepticism about them anyway because the Yes for Independent Maps campaign has used employees as well as volunteers to solicit signatures.

"The signatures haven't been verified yet. ... We'll have to see what the paid solicitors produced," he said.

Opponents also can file a legal challenge as to whether the amendment meets the constitutional requirement that it address issues of both "procedure" and "structure."

What does that mean?

Steve Sandvoss, elections board general counsel, said the two requirements are open to broad interpretation.

"It's one of those things that's whatever the courts decide it is," he said.

Kolenc expressed confidence that the proposed amendment is legally sound because the amendment alters the redistricting procedures so they are "transparent and nonpartisan" and changes the structure of the Legislative Redistricting Commission by replacing legislators with independent commissioners.

Whether the highly politicized Illinois courts agree remains to be seen.

If the amendment survives the signature and legal challenges, the issue will be decided by the voters. To be adopted, the amendment must be approved either by 50 percent of voters participating in the election or 60 percent of those voting on the question. Traditionally, fewer people vote on issues at the lower end of the ballot.

Except for hard-core partisans, this is a tough amendment to oppose. Who, after all, objects to a proposal that establishes a level playing field and promises to create more competitive elections?

Last week, however, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown quoted political activists who suggested the proposals could open the door to racial discrimination.

He quoted representatives of groups representing blacks and Hispanics as expressing fears that the proposed 11-member independent commission will draw a map that "creates very little opportunities for communities of color to have representation."

Rikeesha Phelon, a spokeswoman for Democratic Senate President John Cullerton, said Cullerton "hasn't taken a position on the new independent map proposal" but defended the current Democratic-drawn map "as not as partisan as some believe."

Brooke Anderson, a spokeswoman for Gov. Pat Quinn, said he is "open to this proposal," but that it "needs to be reviewed to make sure it protects against discrimination against minorities."

Brown, Madigan's spokesman, also raised the specter of discrimination.

"We have a very serious concern about voting-rights issues," he said.

Kolenc emphatically rejected that criticism, noting that the amendment contains specific language aimed at protecting minority voting rights and that the amendment's drafters included representatives of minority groups.

"This (amendment) goes above and beyond what is required," he said. "It is disingenuous to say this measure harms minority voting rights."

But there's nothing fair about politics. The goal is to win, often by any means necessary. The proposed map amendment will upset many political apple carts. That's why the effort to defeat it — whether by challenging signatures, in court or at the polls — will be down and dirty.

FAST FACTS: Proposed constitutional amendment

What would proposed amendment change?

Illinois Legislature would no longer draw state House and Senate boundaries. Instead, an 11-member commission would do that.

How would commission be selected?

Through a five-step process:

1) Any Illinois citizen could apply.

2) A nonpartisan Applicant Review Panel, appointed by the auditor general, would weed out anyone with conflicts of interest (e.g., lobbyists and public officials). Panel would pick the 100 most qualified applicants.

3) Each of the four legislative leaders would eliminate up to five applicants.

4) Two Democrats, two Republicans and three independents would be chosen by lottery, proportionally representing Illinois' five judicial districts.

5) Four legislative leaders each appoint a member from remaining pool.

What criteria would be used?

— Contiguous, substantially equal in population, and in compliance with federal laws.

— Not drawn to dilute or diminish the ability of a racial or language minority community to elect the candidates of its choice.

— Respecting the geographic integrity of cities, towns and other local governments.

— Respecting the geographic integrity of communities sharing common social, economic interests.

— Not drawn to discriminate against or favor any political party or group, and not considering the residence of any person.

How many votes to approve a map?

Seven of the 11 members must vote for it, including at least two Democrats, two Republicans and two independent members.

What if commission fails to make a decision?

The chief justice of the state Supreme Court and senior justice from the other political party would choose a commissioner to draw the final map.

Source: independentmaps.org

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.

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