It's Time for Voters to Take Center Stage in Illinois

As a registered voter and lifelong Illinois resident, I am beyond embarrassed by what's happening - and not happening - in Springfield these days. Lawmakers have plunged our state to new, record lows. The most glaring symbol of Illinois' political dysfunction is the state's historic budget stalemate. As we head into a second year in a row without a state spending plan, the budget crisis is causing real pain for real people all across Illinois. But instead of finding solutions, politicians in Springfield seem more interested in waging political warfare. This hyper-partisan atmosphere is hurting our state and preventing progress on the things that all of us care about.

My biggest beef with the current political theater unfolding in Illinois is that politicians play the leading roles and voters have become "extras" standing off in the background. As opposed to a government "of the people, by the people and for the people," there's a concentration of clout in Springfield where a handful of political insiders hold disproportionate power. And the only way to transform this top-down culture is if we, the people, demand fundamental changes to the rules that govern political participation.

Now, the good news is structural reforms are almost within our reach. The Independent Map Amendment, which CHANGE Illinois supports, would take the responsibility of drawing state legislative boundaries away from politicians and give it to an independent redistricting commission. This citizen-led initiative has collected far more verified petition signatures than required to be placed on the November ballot. As President Obama stated in his February address to the Illinois legislature, "In America, politicians should not pick their voters; voters should pick their politicians."

For far too long, Illinois' redistricting process has played out behind closed doors and away from the sunlight of public scrutiny. One political party gains control of the process, and then uses it to advance its partisan interest above nearly all other considerations. No matter which party is in charge, this rigged system stifles competition, protects incumbents, and decreases voters' ability to choose their representatives. Of the 177 total election races for the General Assembly this fall, only 41 percent will have more than one candidate on the ballot.

A fair and impartial redistricting process would empower all voters in Illinois of every race, religion, and ethnic background. Last month, CHANGE Illinois and Common Cause convened a forum at the National Museum of Mexican Art to examine modern redistricting reform measures and their related impact on minority voting protections. Kathay Feng, National Redistricting Director with Common Cause, delivered a presentation on the impact of California's Propositions 11 and 20, which transferred the redistricting process from the state's legislature to an independent citizens redistricting commission. Laura S. Washington, Chicago Sun-Times columnist and political analyst for ABC-7, moderated a panel discussion with local and national redistricting experts including:

Gregory T. Moore, Executive Director of the NAACP National Voter Fund
Jorge Sanchez, Senior Litigator, MALDEF, Midwest Regional Office
Lori E. Lightfoot, Partner with Mayer Brown
Ricardo Meza, Officer at Greensfelder, Former Assistant U.S. Attorney, Illinois
Executive Inspector General, and Former Midwest Regional Counsel for MALDEF
Ruth Greenwood, Senior Redistricting Counsel for the Campaign Legal Center

The forum provided a platform for passionate and intelligent debate about the intersecting issues of redistricting reform, racial equality, and political representation. While the entire program and a selection of resources can be found on our website, here are a few memorable and thought-provoking moments from the event:

1) "The status quo is a disaster"

2) "It's about power"

3) "Power-hungry arrogance" Warning: this clip contains explicit language.

4) "I hope this thing passes"

5) "This is a very bold, very brave statement to make"

Barring action by the courts, voters will be asked to weigh in on redistricting at the ballot box this fall. It's important that we continue to raise the bar on the public's understanding of redistricting: what it is, why it matters, and how all voters would fare under an independent citizens' panel.

This is a make-or-break moment for the people of Illinois and we simply can't afford politics as usual. To fix our broken system we have to expand the practice of democracy and give more power to voters. Come November, we could have the power to do just that.

Ra Joy, Executive Director, CHANGE Illinois