As Illinois courts have repeatedly slapped aside attempts by Illinois voters to wrest control of drawing new legislative district maps from which ever partisans control the Illinois General Assembly, the coalition behind many of those past efforts to place referenda on the Illinois ballot to change the state constitution are now backing a new amendment to combat partisan gerrymandering, with the fight this time beginning in the state legislature.
On Feb. 26, State Rep. Ryan Spain, a freshman Republican lawmaker from Peoria, filed the legislation, known as House Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 43, which the coalition known as Change Illinois believes will give the people of Illinois a greater voice in designing the districts from which the state’s U.S. House representatives, state representatives and state senators are selected.
The proposed amendment would force the state to establish “an independent redistricting commission” to draw the district lines.
Currently, the district boundaries are set every 10 years by legislative leaders in the state House and Senate, with the approval of the governor. In 2010, the last time such a legislative map was set Democrats, led by House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, of Chicago, controlled both houses of the General Assembly, while Democrat Pat Quinn served as governor.
Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan
Republicans have accused Democrats of gerrymandering the maps – or drawing them in such a way to exaggerate Democratic numbers and increase their majority beyond what it should be if district boundaries were drawn using the criteria in the state constitution, of being “compact, contiguous and substantially equal in population.”
Under the current system, should the majority of the General Assembly and the governor deadlock over a map, the state constitution requires the establishment of a “Legislative Redistricting Commission” split between the Republican and Democratic parties. Should that commission deadlock, the constitution requires the Illinois Secretary of State to “publicly draw by random selection” one of two names submitted by the legislative leaders of each party.
Under the new system proposed in HJRCA 43, the state would create an 16-member commission to draw district lines, with two members from each of the state’s judicial districts, selected by two Illinois Supreme Court justices. The committee members would include seven Democrats, seven Republicans and two independents. An additional independent would be appointed in the event of a tie.
Maps would be presented in a series of 20 public hearings before they are presented for approval, and 10 more after formal presentation.
Maps would need to be adopted by Aug. 1, under the proposed amendment.
Further, the proposal would require all of the commission’s communications and underlying data used in the creation of the maps to be public and open to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.
Change Illinois noted the proposed amendment is modeled closely after a similar amendment offered in 2016 by former state Rep. Jack Franks, D-McHenry. Change Illinois noted that proposal received 105 votes from the Illinois House at that time.
“Our redistricting reform amendment establishes an independent redistricting commission to draw Illinois’ maps and make it clear that the public not politicians should control the process,” said Brad McMillan, Co-Chair of CHANGE Illinois and the Illinois Redistricting Collaborative. “With this amendment now filed, Illinois voters around the state can ask their members of the Illinois House and Senate if they’ll support this specific, concrete solution to end gerrymandering.”
Change Illinois has taken the lead on promoting anti-gerrymandering reform in Illinois, absorbing the coalition formerly known as Independent Maps. That group had spearheaded and shepherded the efforts to amass hundreds of thousands of Illinois voter signatures on petitions to place on the ballot a statewide referendum to amend the state constitution to change the way the state draws its legislative maps.
However, most recently in 2016, a sharply divided Illinois Supreme Court refused to allow the amendment to be placed before voters. All four of the justices in the majority against the redistricting amendment – Thomas Kilbride, Anne M. Burke, Mary Jane Theis and Charles Freeman - had affiliated with the Democratic Party before winning election the state high court. Three of those four are from the court’s First District, which solely includes Cook County.
The attempt to amend the constitution by referendum had been challenged in court by a coalition that included a number of allies of House Speaker Madigan.
In their decision then, the Supreme Court focused on language in the proposed amendment to require the state’s Auditor General to participate in the vetting and selection of members of the proposed mapmaking commission. The majority justices said the amendment could not impose new constitutional duties on the Auditor General, while simultaneously changing the rules on redistricting.
The majority also refused to provide any guidance to the Independent Maps Coalition on how to tailor an amendment they believed would be fit to go before voters.
In an interview not long before introducing their new amendment, Change Illinois’ spokesman Jeff Raines said the courts’ steadfast refusal to allow voters to amend the state constitution played a large role in Change Illinois’ decision to pursue the amendment through the General Assembly.
He said it would at least allow voters the chance to see who in the General Assembly supported the current system, and who does not.
Should the measure pass the General Assembly, voters could then approve it at the next general election.
“A number of our member organizations did not want to go down the same path again, particularly since we have no guidance from the court,” said Raines. “So we are changing our approach, and hope we can hold their feet to the fire in coming months.”