Local Editorials

Redistricting reform facade

If you represented the status quo in Illinois – Democratic Party dominance over our broke, crumbling state – and you wanted to project a façade of support for redistricting reform, what would you do?

You would propose the Illinois Voting Rights Act of 2011 and the Redistricting Transparency and Public Participation Act, that’s what.

State Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, chairman of the Senate Redistricting Committee, is the sponsor of Senate Bill 3976, which passed the Senate, 53-4, on Dec. 1. It awaits post-New Year’s action in the House.

SB 3976’s full name sounds good, but it pays only lip service to true redistricting reform. Raoul included a measure to protect representation for minority groups. The bill also would require the House and Senate to have four public hearings apiece about the impact of the maps drawn in 2001.

Many people would agree that minority voices should not be diluted in upcoming maps. But even more would agree that the public-hearing provisions in SB 3976 are a farce.

Voters already know about the county, township, precinct and municipal boundaries that were blithely ignored during the 2001 redistricting process. They already know about the confusion and lack of fairness represented by those highly political districts.

Rather than take testimony on 10-year-old maps, the Legislature should accept input on what the new maps should entail. It should release the 2010 Census information and make map-drawing software available so that the public can participate actively in the process.

Legislators should empower the people to propose House, Senate and congressional district maps, then take testimony from the public before the preliminary redistricting maps are drafted. Then, take more public testimony on the proposed maps before lawmakers pass judgment.

However, even those minor reforms would be a major concession for legislators accustomed to using redistricting for purely political purposes. Behind closed doors, political insiders draw districts to accentuate the dominant party’s grip on power, minimize the minority party’s influence, and punish lawmakers who are at odds with the Legislature’s top dogs.

Earlier this year, our newspaper supported the Illinois Fair Map Amendment. It would have taken redistricting control away from politicians and put it in the hands of a nonpartisan commission. The effort failed, even though tens of thousands of Illinoisans signed petitions of support.

So now, SB 3976 may be the only chance for redistricting “reform,” if you want to call it that. That’s why most senators voted for it.

The bill now sits in the Illinois House Executive Committee. If it isn’t passed by the lame-duck House before Jan. 11, the process must start over with the new Legislature.

We agree with a reform group’s assessment that SB 3976 should be improved. CHANGE Illinois calls for revisions to require public hearings on the proposed new maps before they are put to a vote. Such hearings also would give people the opportunity to propose their own district maps.

Absent those revisions, SB 3976, in its current form, may be the only game in town when House members convene after New Year’s.

Such minimal improvement hardly represents real reform of the process, but it’s a first step. Let’s hope it’s not the last.

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