Independent Maps Turn In 65,000 Pages of Petitions To Change Illinois' Redistricting Laws

May 9, 2016

An Illinois citizens group on Friday moved a step forward in its aim to change the way the state draws legislative boundaries. The constitutional amendment its pushing would take the task of creating new maps from the state legislature and give it to an independent commission. But the proposal still faces hurdles to get on November's ballot.

Workers move a metal box 36 feet long into the Illinois State Board of Elections in Springfield. The box is full of signatures the group Independent Maps collected to get an amendment to Illinois Constitution to change the way it does redistricting.
Credit Sarah Mueller WUIS

The group Independent Maps hired a moving truck and workers to bring the 65,000 pages of petitions to the Illinois State Board of Elections. The papers were delivered in a metal box as long as telephone pole and weighing nearly a ton.

The state redraws legislative districts every 10 years based on updated population numbers, and it's always a political process.

The political party in power — whether Republican or Democratic — can make sure the lines protect its incumbents. That's why Independent Maps chairman Dennis FitzSimons says it's time to move the responsibility to an 11-person panel. Voters could apply to be on the commission and members would be selected by a specially-appointed panel, giving lawmakers a limited say. All applicants’ names would be public.

"It'll be a transparent system as opposed to being done behind closed doors, again, by politicians for politicians," FitzSimons said.

Credit Pool photo by Justin L. Fowler / The State Journal-Register

Fitzsimons has been able to tout a prominent ally in his campaign: President Barack Obama. Obama talked about redistricting in February, when he returned to Springfield to give a historic speech.

"In America, politicians should not pick their voters; voters should pick their politicians," he said.

But Obama also said, "This needs to be done across the nation, not just in a select few states."

Obama was seemingly talking about redistricting on the Congressional level, which the citizens’ initiative doesn’t affect.

  Still, Illinois Democrats – who control both chambers of the General Assembly – say it’s like unilateral disarmament if Republican-controlled legislatures don’t likewise make changes.

Minority lawmakers also criticize the proposal, saying the proposed constitutional amendment would weaken minority voting rights.Senate President John Cullerton said he shares those concerns.

"It has coded language that results in fewer African American legislators and therefore fewer Democrats and it should not be allowed to pass," he said.

The Independent Maps group has said its plan is designed to protect minority voters.

Supporters submitted more than 570,000 signatures to the State Board of Elections, which is nearly double the required number. But those signatures have to pass strict standards; a problem that got a similar proposal knocked off the ballot two years ago.

Even if it gets past that hurdle, it could face another one in court. That was also a problem back in 2014. A court found part of the proposal unconstitutional.

Independent Maps Chairman Dennis FitzSimons in front of the Illinois State Board of Elections in Springfield. The moving truck with the petitions can be seen behind him.
Credit Sarah Mueller WUIS

  Another court challenge is possible, even likely. But Independent Maps advocates said they've revised the wording so that won't be a problem this time around.

State lawmakers considered adding redistricting constitutional amendments of their own to November's ballot. Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, shepherded a measure that would have also created an independent panel but with members selected by the Illinois Supreme Court. Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, advanced a proposal that kept creating the maps largely still up to the General Assembly. But both pieces of legislation died before passing both chambers.