Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Redistricting: Politics vs. reform

By Jamey Dunn

While the Senate Democrats’ proposed constitutional amendment may not be perfect reform, some who have tackled the issue of redistricting before say it could be the most politically viable option.

The Senate's Redistricting Committee heard about three hours of testimony on the Republican proposal last night. Multiple reform groups spoke out in favor of the so-called Fair Map plan, but no witnesses testified explicitly in favor of the Democrat’s plan, which passed on partisan lines.

The biggest point of contention was, of course, who gets to draw the new legislative map after the results of the 2010 census come in.

Brad McMillan, a former member of Gov. Pat Quinn’s Illinois Reform Commission, testified in favor of Fair Map. He said that putting an end to the legislature directly drawing the map is a national trend among states that are reforming the way they create voter districts. He said letting lawmakers draw the map creates a “direct conflict of interest.”

“We’re not asking for perfection. We just think we can do a whole lot better for the people of the state of Illinois,” McMillan.

The Republican amendment, as well as the identical voter’s initiative spearheaded by the League of Women Voters, calls for a commission named by the legislative leaders to draw the map. The eight-member group would vote to pick a ninth member who would likely cast the tie-breaking vote. Members could not be legislators or lobbyists for four years before the plan or 10 years after to avoid involvement from anyone who could benefit from the map.

The Democrat plan, known as the Citizen’s First Amendment, lets the legislature get a shot at drawing the map, and if lawmakers cannot agree, it next moves on to a commission. Both plans call for open hearings, and both parties say they want to encourage input from the public.

Both plans also eliminate the luck-of the-draw provision currently in place. The framers of the 1970 Illinois Constitution put in a last resort for redistricting if an agreement cannot be reached. Two names are put forth by the legislative leaders, and one is randomly selected. Currently the method is the secretary of state drawing a name out of an Abraham Lincoln stovepipe hat. The winner gets to cast the tie-breaking and presumably partisan vote.

The convention delegates thought that no party would want to risk that winner-take-all situation, so it would force compromise. However, it had the opposite effect and that method for drawing the district map has been used more often than not since its creation.

“Anything is better than a hand inside the Lincoln hat,” said Andy Shaw, executive director of the Better Government Association.

Mike Lawrence and John Jackson, who worked on a redistricting plan for the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute under initiatives that passed in the House in 2009, agree that the random drawing is the biggest problem with the current system.

“We saw a need, and we thought that the current constitutional requirement of the random tie breaker was just not working because of course we had three straight decades of it not working,” said Jackson, a political scientist and visiting professor at the institute.

So they called together staff members from both parties, people who had dealt with the issue before and who had ties to both Democratic and Republican party leadership. Lawrence, former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, called the group the “alumni of redistricting.” Its goal was to create reform that could pass in the legislature

Jackson said that the issue of letting the legislature draw the map was politically tricky. “We thought practical politics dictated that we just acknowledge the legislature has the right to redistrict itself if it can.”

“You always are caught on the horns of the dilemma of needing change, and how much change can you get before the thing collapses on itself. And we stopped short of the mark where we thought the thing would collapse politically,” he added.

Lawrence said the current Republican plan “represents significant reform.” However, he said a commission selected by the leaders to draw the map would not completely remove political considerations or legislative influence from the process, either.

He said the goal of the group he worked with was to encourage the legislature to reform itself. “I still believe in the legislative process, even though it tests my patience and that of others.”

Shaw said it is important to consider the impression that the public has of redistricting. He called on lawmakers to try the Republican plan for the next map, pointing out that they could go back to the drawing board if the plan proves to be too flawed to use again in 10 years. “[Legislators], collectively as a profession, have lost the faith of the people,” he said.

Lawrence agrees that the people of Illinois have an important role to play.

“I am pessimistic that anything will come of it without the public being fiercely engaged, much more engaged than if it has been up until now,” he said. He added the process might change if there was “a grass roots uprising, and people flooded the offices of legislators with phone calls.”

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