This November, Illinois voters could eliminate partisan gerrymandering if they approve a ballot initiative slated for the general election. The proposal would create an 11-member independent redistricting commission for state legislative districts and implement new rules for drawing districts designed to rein in the worst gerrymandering abuses.
In Illinois, like most states, the legislature currently draws district lines. With few rules governing how the lines should be drawn, however, this practice allows politicians to manipulate districts and rig elections in their favor.
But there is growing recognition among voters and elected officials that distorted district maps are a serious threat to our democracy. The problem even has President Obama’s attention. In remarks to the Illinois legislature earlier this year, the president said: “We should change the way our districts are drawn. In America, politicians should not pick their voters; voters should pick their politicians.”
Now, Illinois voters look set to have their say. On June 13, the Illinois State Board of Elections unanimously voted to put the amendment on the November ballot after Independent Maps, the nonprofit group driving the reform effort, mounted a massive drive to collect 563,974 signatures from residents all across Illinois, nearly twice the amount needed to get the measure on the ballot. The group also brought together a broad, bipartisan base of support, including a coalition of civic, business, and minority groups as well as candidates from both major political parties.
The proposed amendment intends to remove partisan interests from the mapdrawing process by assembling an independent commission. The first step tasks an independent review panel with vetting commissioner applications and compiling a list of 100 candidates who are diverse and unaffected by conflicts of interest. The majority and minority leaders in each legislative chamber would be allowed to strike five candidates from the list, and then seven commissioners — including two Democrats, two Republicans, and three independents — would be chosen at random from the candidate pool. The legislative leaders would then select the final four commissioners from the remaining pool of candidates in an attempt to balance the commission with respect to Illinois’s demographic and geographic diversity.
At least 7 of the 11 commissioners would have to approve a final redistricting plan, including at least two Democrats, two Republicans, and two independents. This approval mechanism is designed to force mapdrawers to collaborate and compromise and also ensures that each political party has a say in the final maps. If the commissioners are unable to agree on a district plan, the chief justice and most senior judge of the state Supreme Court would select a special master to redraw the districts.
Additionally, the ballot initiative would implement stronger rules for drawing district lines, including protections for minority voters, political subdivisions, and communities of shared social or economic interests. The amendment also would prohibit the commission from drawing districts that discriminate against or favor a particular political party, group, or person.
But the reform effort has another potentially big obstacle to overcome before making it on the ballot.
Lawyers affiliated with the Illinois Democratic Party filed suit challenging the initiative’s constitutionality. They argue that redistricting reform falls outside the scope of ballot initiatives permitted under the Illinois constitution, which only allows citizens to propose amendments that affect the structure or procedure of the state legislature.
The defendants disagree, arguing that redistricting reform is fair game for citizen ballot initiatives because drawing district lines fundamentally implicates the structure of the General Assembly. They also point to a state court ruling from the 2014 redistricting reform litigation that seems to support their interpretation.
The judge presiding over the case has said she will issue a decision by this Thursday, leaving a month until the deadline to certify ballot language with the State Board of Elections. If Independent Maps prevails and the amendment appears on the November ballot, Illinois’s voters will have an important opportunity to reshape the redistricting process and join the growing number of states that have moved to police gerrymandering abuses.
Editor's note: On July 20, the Cook County circuit court ruled that the Independent Map Amendment was unconstitutional. Independent Maps will likely appeal the circuit court’s decision and has requested an expedited hearing in the Illinois Supreme Court. If an appeal is still pending, the Independent Maps Coalition must meet the Aug. 26, deadline with the State Board of Elections in order to certify the ballot.