Petition against gerrymandering gains traction in Champaign County

By Chris Pullam

A petition to outlaw gerrymandering in Illinois may change the political landscape for much of the state.

Gerrymandering, the redrawing of legislative districts by lawmakers, takes place in most states throughout the country. Those in support of the petition fear that lawmakers have drawn, and will continue to draw, the map in a way that reflects their own interests rather than those of their constituents.

The petition must receive 300,000 signatures by May 1 to appear as a proposed amendment on the November 2014 ballot. Citizens could then vote on whether to take redistricting power from the hands of politicians.

Locally, the League of Women Voters of Champaign County and the Illinois Student Senate are collecting signatures in the Champaign area.

So far, the petition has received over 340,000 signatures, according to Barbara Wysocki, president of the league. 

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“Gerrymandering is by definition a very anti-democratic practice,” Wysocki said in an email. “It is designed to perpetuate a party’s control of the legislative process, which by definition should be done with the interest of the populace in mind.”

She added that gerrymandering robs citizens of having their voice heard and may discourage them from voting in elections.

The league promotes viable democracy and, according to Wysocki, believes that citizens must be educated as they make political decisions. This depends on a transparent redrawing of legislative districts that gives voters more power over their elected officials.

Illinois Student Senator Tony Fiorentino, representing the College of Law, has joined Wysocki to promote redistricting reformation. Fiorentino has spent the past month spreading awareness on campus and collecting signatures from interested students.

“This is really a grassroots initiative,” Fiorentino said. “(The politicians) want to assert their control as they’ve always done and go behind closed doors and draw out the map the way they want. So this is a change that would have to come from the bottom up.”

If passed, the amendment would allow the Illinois Auditor General, currently William G. Holland, to appoint a commission that would redraw the map. The commission would consist of eleven independent, private citizens that hold no self-interest in the restructuring of legislative districts. 

This eleven-body commission would redraw the map once every ten years through a public process that would serve the interest of the voters.

Steve Beckett, director of Trial Advocacy at the University’s College of Law and a Democrat, believes that both democrat and republican voters should support the petition, arguing that both parties will strengthen as a result.

“The average person will see legislative districts where there’s a chance that either party could elect a representative,” Beckett said. “And because there’s a chance that either party could elect a representative, more people will run for office, which will mean better choices. Then, once they are in office, they will have to behave themselves because there won’t be an automatic reelection.”

Currently, democrats hold the majority in the General Assembly, granting them control over redistricting. Beckett warned that democrats have an incentive to draw a map that best solidifies their own political power rather than draw a map that best serves their constituents. 

“But the republicans would be in favor of (redistricting) for political reasons because they think they don’t have a chance at a fair map otherwise, and the democrats would be opposed because they’re in power,” Beckett said.

Several states, such as California and Iowa, have already undergone redistricting reformation. These states are drawn in a more compact and continuous way, which is usually a sign that the electoral districts focus primarily on population rather than political interests, according to Fiorentino.

Beckett added that a total of 13 states have outlawed gerrymandering and that they have seen strong success after changing the legislative map-making process.

When the petition is submitted on May 1, the Illinois Secretary of State’s office may challenge individual signatures to verify validity. 

If 300,000 signatures remain after this process, the proposed amendment will appear on the November 2014 ballot. If the voters pass the amendment, redistricting will take place following the 2020 census.

“I don’t think this will be the cure-all for Illinois’ problems,” Wysocki said. “I think that it will have the effect of putting the state on a more honest, open footing as we move forward. Hopefully, this effort should help people gain some trust and confidence in state leadership.”

Wysocki has collected 40 signatures herself and hopes that redistricting at the state level could encourage townships and municipalities to adopt similar policies, creating a better political atmosphere at every level of government.  

Fiorentino, who has supported the petition for the past month, has collected over 80 signatures.

“What we have is a system where you have politicians choosing their voters instead of the voters choosing their politicians,” he said.

Chris can be reached at [email protected].