Jim Dey | Ohio shows Illinois how it's done with fair maps

Jim Dey | Ohio shows Illinois how it's done with fair maps

An overwhelming majority of voters Tuesday turned their collective backs on legislative gerrymandering, approving an amendment to the state constitution aimed at taking partisan politics out of the redistricting process.

No, it wasn't in Illinois. The powers-that-be in our corrupt, dysfunctional and effectively bankrupt state — Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton — like drawing the maps themselves to maintain permanent political power.

The vote was in Ohio, the result of a citizen petition campaign that persuaded the Republican-controlled legislature there to put the proposed amendment on the ballot.

"Ohio is just the tip of the iceberg; this year, we're seeing an unprecedented wave of gerrymandering reform," said Josh Silver, director of the pro-amendment group Represent.Us.

Represent.Us bills itself as the "nation's largest anti-corruption organization" that is made up of a coalition of "conservatives, progressives and everything in between."

It says it's against "political bribery" and "secret money" in politics and wants to "fix our broken elections."

That agenda alone shows one major political difference between Ohio and Illinois.

Illinois politicians have traditionally embraced bribery, secret money and broken elections, especially broken legislative elections.

Indeed, Illinois' long practice of allowing members of the majority party to draw their own state House and Senate districts doesn't just break the election process, it demolishes it.

Manipulating legislative boundary lines to ensure majority power control diminishes real competition from the election process, dramatically reducing voter choice on Election Day.

That's why 77 (49 percent) of the 157 House and Senate seats up for election in November are uncontested. Of the 118 House races, 54 are contested. Of the 39 Senate races, 23 are contested.

But even those pathetic numbers are misleading because some of those running in contested races are token candidates who have no chance of coming out on top after the votes are counted.

The timing of the Ohio vote was especially disconcerting. Even as voters there were freeing themselves from the yoke of a manipulated legislative election process, Illinois' political bosses were throwing dirt on the grave of another citizen effort to install real democracy in the democratic process.

Alas, it was probably a fool's errand, doomed to failure because Madigan and Cullerton decide which proposals will be called for a vote and which ones won't.

Reformers hoped to persuade members of the Senate to vote on the measure, announcing they had commitments from the three-fifths majority necessary to put a constitutional amendment on the fall ballot.

But a vote was not called by the May 6 deadline, a failure that prompted Cullerton to issue a few misleading, insincere words about problems with the proposal.

That Cullerton felt compelled to offer a dishonest explanation for why he didn't call the measure for a vote reveals one difference between him and his political superior, Madigan.

The speaker didn't discuss the measure, didn't call the "Fair Map" measure for a vote and made it a point not to have the House in session as the Sunday deadline approached. The House did not reconvene after one of its routine breaks until Tuesday.

Despite the defeat, CHANGE Illinois sent out a hopeful announcement, emphasizing that it's not done fighting and intends to press legislative candidates in the fall election about their position on taking politics out of the map-drawing process.

"We can still make it a legislative issue," said Jeff Raines, communications director for CHANGE Illinois.

He acknowledged another in a series of defeats and predicted that "the powers that be are going to try to keep the system in their favor."

"But that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep trying," he said, pointing to future efforts in 2019 and 2020.

Raines described the vote in Ohio as "inspiring" and noted that cases challenging the constitutionality of gerrymandering are pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

But there is no minimizing just how difficult it will be for gerrymandering opponents to achieve their goal of getting this issue on the ballot in the face of unrelenting judicial and legislative hostility.

The Chicago Tribune summed up the problem this way — the legislators who benefit from gerrymandering for the most part like the systems the way it is and will do anything to preserve it.

"The people who are supposed to be representing you in Springfield are standing between you and your constitution. They are not on your side. What can you do about it? Not much," The Tribune stated.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.