Editorial | Applying pressure

Editorial | Applying pressure

The political elite in Illinois continue to ignore the broad public interest.

The leaders of ChangeIllinois know, perhaps better than most people, what the political score is in the Land of Lincoln when it comes to our elected officials following the path of least resistance — that is their own political self-interest.

But they also know that the powers that be, who routinely portray themselves as selfless servants of the public interest, just hate it when their baser instincts and activities are brought to public attention.

That's why Madeleine Doubek, executive director of the organization, keeps writing commentaries that urge members of the public to put pressure on their state legislators to eliminate the gerrymandering of Senate and House districts in Illinois.

Gerrymandering represents one of those complicated issues that many people do not understand.

But it refers to the power of majority party incumbents in the General Assembly to draw their own House and Senate district boundary lines. They draw those lines in a way that gives them a political advantage not only to win re-election to their own seats but allow their party to maintain the majority for decades.

Both parties have done it in Illinois. Democrats, who won that power in 2001, have drawn maps that have given them majority, even super-majority, control of the General Assembly for nearly 20 years. If they draw the maps again in 2021 — there's no reason to think they won't — Democrats will maintain their majorities through 2032.

But gerrymandering is about more than just rigging legislative elections years in advance through the skillful drawing of boundary lines. It's also about stripping voters of the opportunity to vote in a competitive election.

That's because most districts drawn to elect either a Democrat or a Republican are rarely competitive — incumbents run without any formal opposition or with only token opposition.

Local examples of that scenario include state Rep. Carol Ammons, a Democrat, and state Sen. Chapin Rose, a Republican. In those districts, primary elections determine the winner in the general election.

ChangeIllinois wants to change that. It's twice led citizen initiatives to amend the state constitution through the referendum process. On both occasions, Democratic judges came to the rescue of Democratic legislative majorities and struck the proposals from the ballot.

Now ChangeIllinois is trying to persuade state legislators to put the measure on the ballot themselves in 2020. Many legislators have signed on to the proposal. But Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan have blocked the measure from moving through the legislative process.

"The Illinois Fair Maps Amendment has a super-majority of 36 of 59 senators signed on as sponsors, including 19 Republicans and 17 Democrats. It's supported by minority groups, farmers, business and good government groups in Illinois," Doubek recently wrote.

"Is it right that there's all that support, but Illinois Senate President John Cullerton hasn't assigned it to a favorable committee to be debated and voted on?" she asked.

Of course, it isn't right. But maintaining gerrymandering has nothing to do with right and wrong — this is all about the preservation of power at the public's expense.

The proposed amendment would strip people like Cullerton and Madigan of their authority to draw district boundary lines in ways that maintain their positions as leaders of a legislative majority. They're not about to give that away to a bipartisan appointed citizens group directed to draw nonpartisan, competitive House and Senate maps.

The maps are drawn every 10 years after the national census is conducted to realign districts affected by population changes. So there's still plenty of time to put the amendment on the ballot for the 2020 election year.

But it will require putting a lot of pressure on local legislators that they'll have to pass on to Cullerton and Madigan to get the "Fair Map" Amendment moving.

Indeed, Cullerton and Madigan, both powerful Chicago pols, are so insulated from public opinion that it's hard to imagine anything that will reverse their self-serving intransigence.

But Illinois is failing, and one of the reasons for its dismal status is the inability of voters to participate in competitive state legislative elections. The only thing that can change the status quo is for voters to do what they have rarely done in this state — stand up against the corrupt, dysfunctional status quo and force their legislators to take real steps to eliminate the anti-democratic scourge of gerrymandering.

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