Citizen-Led Illinois Redistricting Reform Effort Notches Another Key Milestone

Opinion by Reboot Illinois' Madeleine Doubek

How about some good news about citizens taking control of their own government?

The citizen-led Independent Map Amendment initiative easily cleared hefty signature requirement hurdles, was deemed valid and won tentative approval Monday to appear on the Nov. 8 ballot, pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed to try to thwart it.

In a first for an Illinois redistricting attempt after two previous attempts in 2010 and 2014, commissioners on the Illinois State Board of Elections declared the signatures valid, giving a tentative green light to the ballot question that would ask voters if they want an 11-member independent commission to design state legislative districts rather than letting ruling politicians draw them.

"This is a huge hurdle that we've cleared and it's one that no redistricting amendment has so far cleared in Illinois, so we're very excited," said Dave Mellet, campaign manager of the Independent Map Amendment. When this was tried in 2014, "they realized this is a pretty massive undertaking and there's a lot you need to learn about duplicate signatures," he added, "so to get to 290,000 valid signatures is a huge step."

Steven Sandvoss, executive director of the elections board, told commissioners a random sample of 5 percent of the voter signatures the group turned in showed map workers had far surpassed the minimum required number of 290,216 valid Illinois voters' signatures, so a second, random sample was not needed.

A similar citizen effort in 2014 failed at this stage when the sample showed problems with many of the signatures. Two years ago, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Mary Mikva ultimately ruled the previous independent redistricting effort unconstitutional because it would have banned commissioners from running for public office for 10 years after serving on the commission. The new redistricting proposal does not include that restriction.

A lawsuit filed by a group calling itself the People's Map and made up of Chicago-based minority business and advocacy executives suggests the Independent Map group's efforts are unconstitutional, contending it has not met the requirement to change both the process and structure of legislative mapmaking. The People's Map group hired Michael Kasper, the same lawyer who blocked the last independent redistricting effort and who has long been connected to Democratic Party of Illinois Chairman and House Speaker Mike Madigan. Madigan's spokesman Steve Brown previously has denied Madigan is behind the People's Map objections. Kasper did not return a call for comment Monday.

The ballot question asking voters if they want to create an independent commission to draw maps could be officially certified for the ballot at the election board's August meeting if the court challenge is resolved. Cook County Circuit Court arguments over the constitutionality of the citizen redistricting effort are expected June 30.

Further, Sandvoss noted there has been no sign of any attempt at a line-by-line thorough review of the redistricting petition signatures and elections board General Counsel Kenneth Menzel said it "bodes well" that no one has asked for a copy of the petitions to examine them for problems.

"I think they understand that I think it was 73 percent of our signatures were found to be valid by a random sample," Mellet said. "The last attempt, they went through the 5 percent sample and they were found to have, I think, a 45 percent validity rate, so we're talking about almost 30 percent higher. We learned a lot of great lessons from the previous amendment and we had a lot of the same great volunteers. We had over 2,000 people, individual circulators, so it is a huge difference from that."

With the help of prominent citizens and strong donations, more than 2,000 Illinoisans did the tough work to try to change their state government and make it less political. Nearly 300,000 validated Illinois voters said all of us should have that chance to change the map rigging that occurs when politicians of one party or another draw districts after each census.

That power grab and political mapmaking is where corruption is born in Illinois. The 11-member commission would have Democrats and Republicans on it and likely won't be entirely free from political influence, but it is a giant step forward toward fairness and it just took one big leap toward a ballot near you.

With luck, and perhaps providence, the amendment will move past the courts and to your ballot. Illinois citizens are standing up and attempting to own their government.