Dillon: Real Life Lessons in Civics From Springfield
BGA Policy Director Marie Dillon regularly writes opinion articles for the State Journal-Register.
The Illinois General Assembly went all in on civics education this session. That’s a good thing, mostly.
A measure (House Bill 2265) that would require middle schools in Illinois to include a semester of civics passed both houses with bipartisan enthusiasm and awaits Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature. It’s an initiative of the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition, a group of educators, policymakers and public and private advocates convened by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.
It builds on the success of a 2015 campaign to add civics to the public high school curriculum.
Also on its way to the governor is a bill (House Bill 2541) creating a civics course for soon-to-be ex-felons. Inmates would take the class — taught in part by other inmates — as they approach their prison release date. The goal is to prepare them to participate in civic affairs when they rejoin their communities. (In Illinois, voting rights are automatically restored after a sentence is served.)
A group of Carlinville High School students got a hands-on civics lesson this spring, when Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, sponsored a bill (Senate Bill 533) based on their class project. The assignment was to research an issue and advocate for a solution. The students want to liberate Illinois from the spring-forward/fall-back tyranny of Daylight Savings Time. The bill made its way out of committee and advanced to the full Senate.
That’s a lot more than can be said for the Fair Maps Amendment, a measure supported by a coalition of good government groups (including the Better Government Association). The proposed constitutional amendment would assign the once-a-decade job of redrawing legislative maps to an independent commission, instead of letting lawmakers draw their own districts.
The need for this change is evident not just in Illinois but across the country, where partisan lawmakers have brazenly manipulated the maps to secure political advantage, a process known as gerrymandering. In Illinois, the Democratic party has the upper hand, and party leaders have exploited it to draw maps designed to elect more Democrats and fewer Republicans. But Republicans can — and have — done the same, given the chance.
Illinois voters have been trying for more than a decade to wrestle the job away from politicians. It’s an effort that takes on increasing urgency in advance of the 2020 U.S. Census, which will trigger the next round of redistricting.
There are three ways to amend the Illinois Constitution, as we trust those civics classes explain. One is a constitutional convention, in which the whole document is up for editing. Second is for citizens to collect signatures to put an amendment on the ballot. That approach has failed three times in the last decade, largely because of legal attacks sponsored by politicians who don’t want to surrender the power to draw the maps.
Despite those failures, it’s clear that citizens want the change. In each campaign, they collected hundreds of thousands of signatures and raised millions of dollars. Polls show strong voter support. The amendment would pass if it appeared on the ballot.
Which is why the third way ought to be the obvious way: Lawmakers can put an amendment on the ballot themselves. It requires a three-fifths vote of both houses, which isn’t a big hurdle if you believe all those candidates who profess at election time to support fair and independent redistricting.
Yet SJRCA4, the Senate version of the Fair Map Amendment, is parked with four flat tires in the Senate Assignments Committee. The companion measure, HJRCA15, is up on blocks in House Rules. The Fair Map Amendment never got so much as a hearing this session. Just like last session, and the session before ...
That’s a real-life lesson in civics, one that contradicts the textbook narrative about elected representatives who carry out the will of voters. Those middle school teachers are going to have some explaining to do.