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Thursday, April 22, 2010 05:29 am

The ‘Fair Map’ is going nowhere

Illinois’ current congressional district map is due for an overhaul.
Almost nothing frightens state legislators more than redistricting. The drawing of new legislative district maps after every census causes more bouts of heartburn than just about anything else.

Take a look at the day after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when several state senators flocked to a secure computer room to check on their district boundaries just ahead of a critical mapmaking deadline. The rest of us were still in shock, but those senators were taking care of business. Their business.

The ultimate goal in redistricting for legislators is not only to get a map that allows them to remain in their current homes and discourage competition from the other political party, but also to draw a district that eliminates primary opponents and includes their strongest precincts and closest allies.

It doesn’t always work out that way. Former Democratic state Rep. Judy Erwin was a highly respected legislator, but the last remap – controlled by her party – put her in the untenable position of running against colleagues and/or running in a lot of unfamiliar turf. She chose retirement. She wasn’t alone.

Legislative leaders look at the map-making process a different way. They please whom they can (or want) and do everything possible to draw maps that guarantee their party’s dominance. This, of course, is much easier for Democrats in Illinois than Republicans because the state has leaned Democratic for so many years. Even though the Republicans drew the map in 1991, the House Democrats controlled the chamber for eight out of ten years. And the Senate Democrats came within several hundred votes of winning their chamber in 1996.

The Democrats won the right to draw the current map in the 2001 lottery. Since then, their party has dominated legislative elections, mainly because the party has done so well statewide.

Besides completely turning around their party’s fortunes and tweaking some of the more evenly divided districts, the best way legislative Republicans can get back into the game is to trap the Democrats in Chicago as much as possible and keep them from splitting up suburban Cook County towns and strategic Downstate communities into tiny pieces.

The Democrats have successfully used “spoking” to extend their Chicago districts into the Cook County suburbs. Spoking simultaneously dilutes suburban Republican votes and adds to the number of city-centric Democrats who can be elected. Trap the Democrats in Chicago and make sure suburban and Downstate towns are kept whole, and the Republicans might possibly be able to draw maps that give them a halfway decent shot at winning their chambers.

That’s a big reason the Democrats are turning thumbs down on a remap proposal by the Republicans and good government groups such as the League of Women Voters. The “Fair Map Amendment” would all but prohibit mapmakers from crossing municipal boundaries. It’s a GOP dream come true, the Dems say, and the good government types fell for it.

The “Fair Map” authors have also steadfastly denied Democratic accusations that their proposed constitutional amendment would dilute minority rights. But during a state Senate committee hearing last week, the proponents admitted that they were working on changing their legislative proposal to satisfy groups like the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund which had objected to the measure.

The “Fair Map” group is also trying to gather signatures to put the proposal on the ballot this fall, and it’s far too late to change the wording on that initiative’s race and ethnic provisions. Last week’s all but admission that their language falls short of protecting minority rights could be used against their petition effort as the submission deadline draws near.

The Senate Democrats passed their own alternative last week, and it has its flaws as well. Far too often, district maps are drawn to allow legislators to choose their voters, rather than the other way around. The Senate Democratic proposal doesn’t really do anything to address this very real problem.

In the end, though, all this may be for naught. The reformers and the Republicans haven’t been able to convince the Democrats to adopt their plan, and the word is that their petition-gathering operation isn’t up to snuff. The House Democrats are one vote shy of a three-fifths majority required to pass constitutional amendments, so it’s unlikely that they could pass the Senate-approved measure even if they wanted to. What we have here is probably an empty debating exercise with no real future.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.
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