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Commentary: Will Illinois end its redistricting lottery?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 14, 2010 - Illinois stands remarkably close to transforming its widely reviled and ridiculed scheme for drawing state legislative districts into a model for the nation, but it will take leaps of statesmanship prodded by heaps of citizen engagement to get there.

Influential Democrats and Republicans agree on nuclear components of overhauling a process that has given one party or the other undue advantage in building General Assembly majorities and denied most voters real choices in choosing their representatives. Yet, their differences could doom reform that would make lawmakers more responsive and responsible.

Illinoisans simply cannot squander this opportunity. We must amend the state constitution to scrap a draw-from-the-hat mechanism that for three consecutive decades has permitted the lottery winner to dictate the new boundaries required after every census.

Regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans got lucky, the modus operandi has remained constant: Secretly craft the districts from which legislators are elected. Splinter cities and even neighborhoods to maximize partisan advantage. Assure cushy districts for as many of your incumbents as possible. Cede some areas to your opponents if it helps you capture nearby turf. Let this callous cartography severely limit the number of competitive districts and allow legislative leaders and interest groups to pour millions into the few true races - never mind the public's interest.

That would change dramatically under a proposed constitutional amendment supported by leading reform groups and top Republicans - or an alternative previewed recently by Senate Democrats.

Both would junk the lottery as the stalemate breaker if legislators fail to redistrict. Instead, they would empower a special master, appointed in bipartisan fashion by the Illinois Supreme Court, to draw the districts in the event of gridlock.

They would permit separate mapping of House and Senate districts - unlike the present system that permits one chamber to block agreements reached in the other. They would curtail the breaching of municipal boundaries and enhance transparency by mandating a series of hearings throughout the state.

Although the proposals would retain significant roles for General Assembly leaders, they would diminish the chances of one-party mapmaking domination by requiring extraordinary legislative majorities to approve a redistricting plan. Both embody the essence of reforms developed by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.

But they are not identical.

The plan supported by the League of Women Voters , several other organizations and Republicans would enhance bipartisanship by requiring two-thirds majorities for legislative approval. That compares with a three-fifths threshold in the approach unveiled by Senate Democrats, who under that standard could unilaterally approve a map in 2011 unless they lose two seats in the 2010 election.

Although both proposals establish bipartisan, quasi-independent commissions, the League's measure would direct its panels to submit maps that must be wholly accepted or rejected by lawmakers while the Senate Democrats' plan would allow legislators the first crack at redistricting.

To submit their measure to voters in November, the League and its allies need hundreds of thousands of signatures in the next month or so, as well as state Supreme Court affirmation that their proposal fits the constitution's narrow niche for citizen initiatives. The odds for substantial changes in redistricting would escalate if the good-government groups and the Republicans backing them could resolve differences with Democratic lawmakers and put a General Assembly-initiated proposal on the fall ballot.

We have not seen much of such statecraft lately. But it just might happen if citizens demand it. Illinoisans need to support the outstanding work of the reform groups by signing their petitions and simultaneously holding their lawmakers accountable for moving a proposal out of the legislature.

Mike Lawrence, former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, writes a twice-monthly column.