The Democratic Party gained even more power in Illinois as a result of the legislative district map leaders drew last year. This serves the politicians, but not the voters, who effectively have little choice.
The strategy of Illinois' Republican Party in the recently concluded election campaign was to take aim at Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan of Chicago, figuring he had such a negative perception among voters that making him the target would help Republican candidates. Their campaign slogan was "Fire Mike Madigan."
It would be a major understatement to say it didn't work — and the biggest reason was the gerrymandered legislative redistricting map that Democratic leaders Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton rammed through over Republican objections.
Gerrymandering — drawing legislative district lines to give one party or the other an advantage — has a long and dishonorable history in our state and nation. Some states, including Iowa, have done something about it, establishing nonpartisan commissions to draw apolitical maps aimed at encouraging competition. But Illinois has steadfastly refused.
The partisan approach to the once-a-decade redrawing of legislative and congressional election maps must change if Illinois voters are ever to have any real choice in elections.
Democrats gained enough seats in the House and Senate last Tuesday to ensure veto-proof, three-fifths supermajorities and render Republicans in the General Assembly irrelevant for at least two years and possibly for the next decade. The Illinois Republican Party, still not recovered from the George Ryan years, will be reeling going into the 2014 election for governor.
On a purely political level, you have to admire Madigan. As a tactician, you would be hard-pressed to find his equal. And he knows how to wield his power to get his way.
But even the veteran speaker of the House and leader of the Illinois Democratic Party had to be elated at the scope of his party's victory. Democrats gained seven seats in the House for a 71-47 advantage and five in the Senate for a 40-19 advantage. Illinois' congressional delegation breaks 12-6 for Democrats; Republicans previously held 11 of 19 seats. (Illinois lost one seat because it didn't grow as fast as other states.)
Illinois was essentially a one-party state even before the election, and the Democrats have only gotten stronger. There's nothing wrong with that if you're a Democratic partisan, which is why they drew the legislative district map to gain the maximum advantage. Both Democrats and Republicans do it in other states.
But the partisan approach to redistricting turns the election process on its head, and it needs to change. Through the manipulation of district boundary lines, elected officials pick their voters, not the other way around.
You want evidence? Political experts estimated before the election that just 13 to 16 of the 59 Senate seats and roughly 20 of the 118 House seats offered voters competitive choices, and 56 percent of the races were uncontested.
There is a remedy, one that legislative leaders obsessed with maintaining power will never embrace — a bipartisan redistricting process.
Last year, the League of Women Voters tried but failed to collect enough signatures to put on the ballot a proposed constitutional amendment calling for a bipartisan map-drawing process. But they started late and collected just a fraction of the roughly 300,000 signatures they needed.
Another group, CHANGE Illinois, is considering organizing a similar petition drive aimed at putting a "Fair Map" constitutional amendment on the 2014 general election ballot. CHANGE Illinois is a public advocacy group that has 2.5 million members and represents 80 different organizations.
Its vice chairman, Peter Bensinger, says it is considering the petition drive as a top priority. We have often advocated for adoption of a fair, impartial redistricting process, and the results of the latest election bear out the need. There is plenty of time to organize a campaign for adoption of a "Fair Map" amendment, and we can think of no better way to improve the state's political climate than to ensure competitive legislative elections in which voters have a real choice.
But for now, to the victors go the spoils, and Democrats have gained something else in this election besides supermajorities — sole ownership of the mess they played a large part in creating. They can no longer blame Republicans for not acting on problems bedeviling the state such as the pension funding shortfall, the gigantic bill backlog, Medicaid spending, the state's business climate and finding enough money to fund vital state services such as education.
It's all up to them for now. They need to find the will they have not demonstrated so far.