Redistricting Debate Sure to Include Squirming | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Redistricting Debate Sure to Include Squirming

Few things in politics make lawmakers squirm like the process called redistricting. Every ten years states redraw the boundaries of their legislative and congressional districts. And with each gain for one group or party, comes a loss for another. Good government types often complain about Illinois' systems for drawing new maps. And in a legislative season supposedly dedicated to big change, redistricting barely came up. Lawmakers wanted more time to explore the issue. That starts with a public meeting next week in Chicago.

No one - no one - I talked to says they like how Illinois carves out its state legislative districts. But change doesn't come easily.

LAWRENCE: There is no more politically-charged issue than redistricting.

Mike Lawrence is a former journalist, government aide and academic, who'll use his decades of political knowledge to help explain this convoluted process. Every ten years - 2011 is the next time - the feds deliver census data to Illinois, and state lawmakers get first crack at drawing a map. But if it's not approved by a June deadline, a commission is put together with four Democrats and four Republicans. If that group can't reach a consensus, Lawrence explains, things go a bit nuts.

LAWRENCE: What happens is the lottery actually determines whether a Democrat or Republican will be appointed to an eight-member commission to become the ninth member and therefore tilt the commission one way or another.

That's right - a lottery. And in 1981, 1991 and - yes - 2001, Illinois' districts were ultimately determined not by consensus, but by the secretary of state pulling a name out of a hat, box or whatever.

Lawrence says the final maps often include safer seats for incumbents, and they tend to include very Republican districts, and very Democratic districts.

LAWRENCE: What that has done is to make many legislators more concerned about primary elections than general elections.

Lawrence says that means Republican lawmakers tend to act more conservative, and Democrats more liberal - making bipartisan agreements less likely. He says there has to be a better way.

FORTNER: The technology is there. We really have a chance to use it to really further democracy in a unique way.
HUDZIK: We're in the office of Mike Fortner, a professor of physics at Northern Illinois University.
FORTNER: Okay, so if I open a new tab on the browser here...

In his crowded office in Dekalb, Fortner's looking at a map - a redistricting map - that he designed for a contest in Ohio. As Fortner explains, the Ohio secretary of state and some groups there were kicking around ideas for a new way to draw the state's electoral boundaries. So they thought...

FORTNER: What if we asked the people to draw the maps, but have very clear criteria for what are the goals. We want districts that are compact. We want districts that behave in a way that don't split counties and other natural political boundaries. And we want to have a map that - in the end - creates more competitive districts.

In a trial run this year, the Ohio secretary of state put data from the last census online, plus fancy mapping software, to let members of the public draw and submit maps. Fortner's scored in the top three.

HUDZIK: Did you win anything?
FORTNER: No, just the recognition on their website.

Fortner likes Ohio's idea of citizen involvement so much that he wants Illinois to adopt the plan for its redistricting. And that's where his second job comes in handy. In addition to being a physics professor, Fortner's also an Illinois state representative. So he proposed an amendment to Illinois' constitution.

FORTNER: It's called HJRCA 32 for those who are looking at the technical numbers.

Fortner's amendment is one option among many that a state Senate committee may consider starting next week. Committee chair Kwame Raoul says he hopes to put together a bipartisan constitutional amendment that voters could consider in the 2010 election.

RAOUL: The notion that we will get some sort of perfection - I'm not so naïve to believe that we will achieve that at the end of this process. That said, I come to it with a very open mind.

Of course, the result could be no change at all. In the early '90s, then-Secretary of State George Ryan was so disturbed by the lottery system that he set up a commission to study possible redistricting reforms. It ended up recommending that - barring a legislative consensus - a computer would draw the maps. That plan went nowhere.

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