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Reeder: Voters win when redistricting becomes impartial

Published: Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD – When it comes to state legislative races, most of us don’t have much of a choice in the voting booth.

In fact, during the last general election, 42 percent of Illinois lawmakers didn’t have an opponent at all. And an additional 53 percent faced only nominal opposition, winning their races by a margin greater than 5 percent.

That leaves few competitive legislative races. In 2012, only 10 of 194 legislative races – a mere 5 percent – were actually close.

So in most Statehouse elections, the winner was a foregone conclusion long before Election Day.

“I think a lot of people don’t run because they don’t think they can win,” said Neil Anderson, of Rock Island, who is seeking the Republican nomination for state Senate. “The system we have now favors one party. The public deserves to have a choice in candidates.”

Anderson, who expects to run against incumbent state Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, in the 2014 general election said he has been told his race may well be the most competitive state Senate race in Illinois.

In fact, it may be the only competitive Senate race.

That’s not good.

When politicians fear the voters, we have democracy. When voters fear the government, we have something far more sinister.

Today, we have an unprecedented level of arrogance in the Illinois General Assembly.

Instead of having a Legislature beholden to the voters, we have a membership that kowtows to legislative leaders, union bosses and other special interests.

How did we get in this predicament?

The professional political class has found a way to keep most lawmakers from being held accountable.

Instead of voters picking legislators, legislators are picking their voters.

It all begins with how the boundaries of Illinois legislative districts are drawn.

Using sophisticated computer programs loaded full of voter history, census data, demographic trends and a whole host of other information, lawmakers draw up legislative districts.

“In Illinois, the public really isn’t a consideration in the redistricting process,” said Mike Lawrence, former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “The two considerations that do go into legislative redistricting, right now, are consolidation of political power and, to a lesser extent, protection of incumbents. Neither serves the public particularly well. That’s why I support a change.”

Instead of drawing districts with a good mix of Republicans, Democrats and independents, state politicians are deliberately drawn to favor one party – the one in control.

Democrats control the House, Senate and governor’s office.

The maps they have drawn disproportionately favor their political party here in the Prairie State.

Republicans aren’t angels, either. In the states where the GOP has control, they often do the same thing.

It seems whichever party is in control, the professional politicians want to curtail the ability of voters to be heard.

A coalition called Yes for Independent Maps is pushing to have voters consider a constitutional amendment next year that would take the power to draw legislative maps away from legislators.

Instead, an independent commission would draw the boundaries of legislative districts. The commission members would be drawn from a pool of experts and selected in a manner similar to how jury members are picked.

Instead of having the Land of Lincoln drawn into a patchwork of odd-looking districts designed to boost the electoral prospects of one particular political party, the commissioners would draw compact districts and divorce themselves from partisan considerations.

It would seem a step in the right direction.

Whether it is on an athletic field, the business world or at the ballot box, competition makes for a better society.

It’s time that more lawmakers learn to compete in the marketplace of ideas.

The only sure winners in such a scenario are the voters.

• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist in residence at the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at sreeder@illinoispolicy.org.

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