Important victory after string of losses in redistricting reform

Chicago Sun-Times

House Speaker Michael Madigan scored a major court victory on Friday for the state’s power brokers.

But if you look deeply, there’s a clear silver lining for the people of Illinois.

Two proposed state constitutional amendments, one to impose term limits on legislators and the other to wring politics from the state’s legislative redistricting process, were tossed off the November ballot after a Cook County judge ruled them unconstitutional.

Soon after, the backers of the redistricting proposal pulled the plug on their effort. The group could have appealed to the state Supreme Court. That’s what the term limit group — backed by GOP gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner — intends to do, with a quick ruling expected.

Rauner’s initiative looks like a goner. Judge Mary Mikva ruled that imposing term limits through a ballot initiative is unconstitutional, the second time the courts have spoken unequivocally on that topic.

But on redistricting reform, which this editorial page long has supported, the door remains wide open to resuscitate the amendment in a slightly different form for the next election. There’s more than enough time. Redistricting won’t occur until after the 2020 census.

And that’s just what the group, Yes for Independent Maps, intends to do. In the court ruling, they see an important win — and we strongly agree — in a long string of losses in the quest for redistricting reform. In her ruling, Judge Mary Mikva said that the particular redistricting amendment before her was unconstitutional, but “a differently drafted redistricting initiative could be valid.”

She also pointed to the problem area that needs fixing. That’s a road map if we’ve ever seen one, an invitation to take a second crack at this vitally important effort.

Redistricting is arcane and boring, but the state’s once-every-10 years redistricting process sets the stage for everything that happens in Springfield — whether legislative elections give voters a real choice, who controls the majority in the General Assembly, whose bills get called, whose bills get canned.

The party in power now essentially controls the redistricting process, ensuring a map that keeps them in power and limits voter choice. That’s why a voter referendum is so important — the majority party will almost certainly never approve it on its own. The ballot proposal would have taken the redistricting process out of the hands of lawmakers and created an 11-member commission to draw the boundaries of legislative districts.

Mikva ruled that one element of the amendment, which prohibits commissioners from holding elected office for 10 years after being a commissioner, violated a specific provision in the constitution. We liked that element — it helps the commission remain as free from politics as humanly possible — but it could go if it opened the door to more independent redistricting.

The Independent Map group had a good shot with the Supreme Court, but we respect the decision to call it quits. In addition to Friday’s loss, the effort was seriously threatened by state Board of Election questions about the validity of voter signatures on referendum petitions. That effort, as well as the lawsuit, clearly were backed by Madigan, the man most likely to benefit from the status quo, but many of the board of election questions appear legitimate. The questioning was not all about politics, as some have suggested.

On the long and winding road to a more fair, independent and competitive political process in Illinois, we consider Friday a potential turning point. If reformers play their cards right, it’s a day to mark as the beginning of a new era in Illinois politics.