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Illinois and the Case for Open Redistricting

by Guest Blogger

Transparency is a cornerstone of democracy: If citizens can’t see the process, they can’t be expected to be informed participants in it. In Illinois, the Citizen Advocacy Center (CAC), a renowned non-profit, non-partisan organization “dedicated to building democracy for the 21st century,” has applied this same perspective to their local and state officials’ cracks at redistricting. Today, Maryam Judar, a Community Lawyer at the CAC, shares more insight on this issue with us.

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Redistricting and the Illinois experience are illustrative of why the people clamor for transparency, and how public officials cynically use transparency to gain advantage. The clamor is easy to explain: Fair redistricting practices drive competition at the ballot. Competition is central to our nation’s democracy: robust debate is a foundational value of our political system. A lack of competitive views reflected on the ballot reduces voters’ choices. The lack of meaningful choice on ballots is a common complaint by voters. Revised redistricting procedures that benefit the public rather than elected officials may ameliorate the public’s frustration with lack of candidate choice, and it may spur more people to vote.

These days the term “transparency” is bandied about at all levels of our government. Some of the clamor comes from the citizenry who are anxious about the activities of their governments and need a means of holding them accountable; and while some public officials jump on the transparency bandwagon and trumpet its virtues in hopes of using it as a political vehicle to gain advantage, others sincerely believe in transparency’s importance and join the discussion. Transparency, while having little-examined benefits for government officials and employees, ultimately protects the people from government mismanagement and unethical behavior. In the national and state-wide debates, the importance of transparency is best told by stories that exemplify what is at stake for all members of the public, and from the public’s perspective.

THE MOST CLOSED OPEN PROCESS


In the aftermath of former Governor Blagojevich’s indictment, elected officials could not ignore the calls for transparency during the redistricting cycle. In fact, Governor Quinn’s own Illinois Reform Commission formed in response to his predecessor’s arrest and impeachment reported the current structure of government in Illinois, including the system for drawing congressional and state legislative districts, “does not serve the best interests of the people, and instead functions to protect incumbents and concentrate political power in a handful of officials.” (Illinois Reform Commission 100-Day Report, April 28, 2009, at www.reformillinoisnow.org, p. 47.) During this redistricting cycle, for the first time the public could speak out at public hearings and even had maps that were made available for public inspection before legislators voted on them, albeit just days before their deadlines.

The outcome? Nineteen Republican representatives face elections against at least one other Republican incumbent in the redistricting map signed by Governor Pat Quinn. Democrats have acknowledged their maps result from their consideration of partisan voting data, and they confound the issue of fairness by pointing to the “most open process Illinois has ever had.”

Which, to be fair, is true, as outlined above. The bad news is their measures towards transparency can be described at best as achieving translucency -- ultimately, mapmaking decisions are made outside the public’s eye. In contrast, the Commission recommended adopting legislation to restore fairness to the process by which state legislative and congressional districts are drawn, and it specified that ideally the legislation would exclude the consideration of residency of incumbent legislators, political affiliations of registered voters, and previous election results.

Disturbingly, Governor Quinn, formerly a staunch champion of good government practices, was not troubled by the maps’ outcome. "My view is that the process for redistricting, both the congressional districts and the state legislative districts, is the most open process Illinois has ever had," Quinn said in response to the filing of the LWV lawsuit. "There was ample public participation and opportunity to participate. I looked at both maps in a very careful way and made a decision that they were fair (and) done through an open process. So we're happy to defend that work in any court in the land." (Rick Pearson, Voter group sues over Democratic-drawn districts for lawmakers, Chicago Tribune, August 16, 2011.)

PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE MAPS BEHIND THE CURTAIN


This attitude that the public need not be privy to the actual decision-making behind the drawing of district boundaries is not limited to the State; it is mimicked wherever its false reassurances can be invoked, whether at the municipal or county level.

As in other redistricting cycles, lawsuits challenging the final maps attempt to hold accountable the Illinois state officials who are responsible for redistricting. To date, two lawsuits, now consolidated, challenge the Democratic legislation redrawing the state’s legislative and congressional district boundaries. Illinois State Republican Leaders filed a federal lawsuit to invalidate the 2011 maps and included the novel legal theory that the map violates the First Amendment of our United States Constitution by diluting the voting power of Republican voters across the state. The League of Women Voters of Illinois filed a federal lawsuit alleging that both the state legislature and congressional districts violate the First Amendment by discriminating according to a person’s political viewpoint.

Unfortunately resources are scarce to hold the local officials accountable for their redistricting behavior. A low cost method of holding officials accountable where the likelihood of an expensive lawsuit is slim is through enforcing strong transparency measures. Recently the Illinois Attorney General found that the McHenry County Board violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act by holding a closed door meeting in which five members took turns in pairs to rotate out of the room in an effort to skirt the legal definition of a meeting. (Attorney General: County Board meeting violated Open Meetings Act Kevin P. Cramer, Northwest Herald August 13, 2011.) In DuPage County, the board members practiced the safer alternative of meeting between each 3 member district and the consultant, causing piecemeal district creation and ensuing public accusations by public officials of political gerrymandering. While DuPage County’s redistricting practices did not garner a scolding Attorney General opinion, allegations of political gerrymandering pitted representatives from the same district against one another, where the whistleblower stood to lose little from revealing what he witnessed in the closed door redistricting process because he planned to run for government office in the next election cycle. The board ultimately voted in the arguably offending map,appropriately named the Fitzpatrick Finger in honor of the opposing candidate that was drawn out of the district.

The better way, and to repeat, the low cost way, to hold our state and local governments accountable for their redistricting methods is through strong transparency measures that provide meaningful rationales for the best interest of the public behind district boundaries.