The election machinery in Illinois was broken in more places than Humpty Dumpty after his great fall until recently, when our elected state leaders began to embrace a few reforms that have civic and political benefits.
For instance, permitting early voting, and voter registration on Election Day and online, encourages civic engagement—more people participating in the electoral process—which is healthy.
The Democrats who controlled the General Assembly and governor’s office when those measures were enacted apparently believe a majority of new voters will support Democratic candidates, which makes the reforms good politics from their partisan standpoint.
That may also explain Democratic support for automatically registering Illinois residents who apply for driver’s licenses and several other state documents, but we now have a Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, who hasn’t indicated whether he’ll sign or veto that bill.
Meanwhile, many other election reforms with the potential to increase voter participation are still aspirational: Online voting, printing ballots in foreign languages, empowering election officials to crack down on abuses, consolidating individual suburban election boards into single county election authorities, holding open—not party-specific—primary elections in summer or early fall instead of March, and taking a non-partisan approach to legislative redistricting.
The last one, independent redistricting, is the big issue on the table right now.
Nothing undermines participation in the electoral process more insidiously than gerrymandered legislative districts concocted by politicians to protect incumbents, discourage challengers and highjack our democracy.
That’s why more than 20 reform groups, including the Better Government Association, support the Independent Maps campaign to let Illinois voters decide, in a November referendum, whether an independent panel should be drawing legislative maps based on geography, demography and minority rights, but not partisan politics.
The Independent Maps campaign collected 560,000 signatures on petitions, more than enough to get on the ballot, but a Cook County judge recently knocked it off, ruling that it doesn’t meet the narrow requirements of the 1970 Illinois Constitution for binding referendums.
Now it’s on an expedited appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, and here are a few highlights from the legal challenge to the lower court ruling:
- Reform organizations representing several million voters support the appeal.
- Independent commissions have increased competition, representation and fairness in other states.
- Computerized mapmaking has made gerrymandering easier and its impact more deleterious.
- The amendment meets the legal test for ballot initiatives.
Our BGA lawyer, Matt Topic, points out that “one of the goals of the 1970 Constitution was to remove legislative self-interest from the redistricting process,” and the lower court ruling “creates an insurmountable roadblock to exactly the kinds of reforms the framers had in mind.”
The Independent Maps campaign agrees, saying the lower court ruling “virtually guarantees that voters will be denied the constitutional right to choose the way legislative districts are drawn and further diminish the voice of the people in state government.”
Most of the state’s Democratic leaders see redistricting reform as an attempted power grab by Republicans, but Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown, an avowed Democrat, writes in a recent column: “I want Democrats to control the legislature, but not at the expense of democracy itself.”
So now it’s up to our seven Illinois Supreme Court justices—four Democrats and three Republicans— to decide whether to let the voters make the final decision in November.
In other words, does state government belong to the people or the politicians?
That’s an easy answer in a democracy: Let us decide.