Map plan would give public a chance

Changing the political culture of our state requires a dramatic change in the corrupt status quo.

It will take a revolution on a number of fronts to pull state government in Illinois out of the depths of the fetid and festering sewer in which it now unhappily dwells.

But a coalition of good government groups took a step in the right direction last week when it announced a campaign to reform the way voters elect members of the Illinois House and Senate by changing the way legislative district maps are drawn.

Explained simply, the proposal, which will require a state constitutional amendment to become law, takes map-drawing away from self-interested, hyper-partisan legislators who draw the boundary lines to suit themselves and puts the authority in the hands of an "independent, non-partisan and transparent" 11-member commission.

This is a process issue, and it can be complicated. But it boils down to this: Do Illinoisans want more competitive elections that give voters a real choice and require elected officials to be accountable or do they want to preserve the status quo — uncontested or non-competitive races for the vast majority of the 118 state House seats and 59 state Senate seats?

There really should be no hesitancy in embracing this change. After all, it's borderline impossible to create a situation worse than what we have now — corruption, incompetence and fiscal chicanery reflected in debt, deficit and near-bankrupt public pension systems. In the face of that, what do people have to fear in taking a new route that puts the public first and the politicians second?

The campaign is being led under the banner of "Yes for Independent Maps," and plans call for a petition drive to collect the 300,000 signatures required to get the issue on the 2014 ballot. If approved, the proposal would not go into effect until new legislative boundary lines are drawn in 2021-22.

This is where it gets somewhat complicated. Every 10 years, following completion of the decennial census, Congress and the state legislatures draw new legislative district boundary lines to account for growth and shifts in population. The idea is to create legislative districts that are roughly equal in size.

Map-drawing always has been subject to subterfuge, like designing maps to assist the majority party or particular legislators. That process is called gerrymandering.

With the advent of computers, gerrymandering has been elevated to a fine art. Boundary lines based on a community's voting histories can lock one party into control of the legislature for a decade or more.

That's the case in Illinois, where in 2011 Democrats drew themselves into a majority that they will undoubtedly keep until 2022. In other states, Republican majorities draw maps to give them permanent control.

This kind of partisan double-dealing with the public has to be stopped, and professional politicians can be expected to fight this fair map proposal. They will challenge petition signatures, which means that organizers will try to collect twice as many signatures as are legally required. If need be, vested interests will file a lawsuit asking the courts to remove the issue from the ballot. House Speaker Michael Madigan may even try to fill the ballot up with bogus amendment proposals to leave no room for the map amendment.

This is war, and no supporter of the map proposal should underestimate the challenge ahead.

So citizens who care about the current debased state of Illinois must get involved. Information about Yes for Independent Maps and this amendment is available at http://independentmaps.org/ on the Internet.

We also urge groups like the Farm Bureau, the League of Women Voters and the many others heartsick about what has happened to Illinois to join this effort and urge their members to pass and sign the petitions that will be going around.

There's no down-playing the degree of difficulty involved in this effort. Passing a constitutional amendment will be difficult, first to get on the ballot and then to attract the extraordinary majority of election votes necessary for adoption.

Many people think Illinoisans gave up a long time ago on the possibility of making the state respectable. They fear that people are so inured to the non-stop corruption and incompetence that they accept it as the way things are and always will be.

Unfortunately, it is the way things are, but change for the better is possible if enough people step up and fight back against our sorry tradition. Changing the way legislative maps are drawn in Illinois is one — but just one — way of putting the people back in charge. Don't let the opportunity to participate in this crusade — yes, crusade! — pass you by.

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