SPRINGFIELD — — With the help of wealthy donors and a bipartisan group of politicians, a petition to end the gerrymandering of Illinois election districts was presented Thursday, but it faces a stiff constitutional challenge that could keep the question off the November ballot.
A group called "Yes for Independent Maps" submitted more than half a million signatures to the state Board of Elections, proposing a ballot question that would take the job of creating legislative districts away from lawmakers and give it to an independent commission of experts.
It faces powerful opposition, including a lawsuit filed Wednesday by allies of House Speaker Michael Madigan, the state Democratic Party chairman, which also seeks to stop voters from imposing term limits in Illinois.
Advocates of reform say the current method of allowing politicians to draw the state's political maps leads to the majority party in Springfield unfairly accumulating power that can last a decade, by adjusting a district's lines to protect incumbents and limit votes for political foes. Democrats now hold supermajorities in both the state House and Senate, partly due to maps their party drew after the 2010 Census.
"Democrats have done it. Republicans have done it. If they didn't do it, we would think something was in the water in Springfield," said Mike Kolenc, the campaign's manager. "We really feel that this will actually allow voters to choose their legislators, rather than the other way around."
The initiative would set up an 11-member commission to draw the maps, similar to recent reforms in California and Arizona. The group has 532,000 signatures, but only needs about 300,000 to get the proposal on the general election ballot.
Past efforts to overhaul the process have failed. The most recent in 2011 by The League of Women Voters, which supports the current measure, did not gather enough signatures.
Opponents of reform say the current process is fair, and is a way to protect the interests of racial minorities and other constituent groups from having their influence diluted. At a hearing last week in Springfield, Madigan dismissed the proposal as an effort by "angry" Republicans to regain influence in the state.
"Put the Republicans in charge of something and there's going to be an adverse effect on minorities," Madigan said.
But other influential Democrats are lining up in support of reform, including David Axelrod, the political consultant who helped President Barack Obama get elected. Among those donating funds to the campaign are wealthy Illinois businessman and Republican donor Ken Griffin and billionaire former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
State Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat, donated to the campaign.
"Fundamentally, it's to help restore faith in our political system," Steans said. "It changes the incentive for people to work together, not to go to the extremes, which is a healthy dynamic."
Legislators now get the first shot at drawing a new map. But if a majority of lawmakers can't agree on a plan, a bipartisan, eight-person commission is supposed to draw the map — which has occurred every year but 2011 since the process was established in the 1970 state constitution. If the commission can't agree, then the Secretary of State draws the name of a ninth member from an Abraham Lincoln stovepipe hat to break the stalemate — giving control of the map to which party that person belongs to.
The 2011 redistricting controlled by Democrats has led to some odd-looking districts. For example, Democratic state Rep. Christian Mitchell's district starts near the Gold Coast on the north side of Chicago and stretches 20 miles south to some of the poorer communities on the south side of the city.
"This is a process that happens literally behind a locked door," Kolenc said.
The proposed plan would establish a more neutral, 11-person mapmaking commission, much like empaneling a jury, from a pool of candidates who cannot be politicians, state employees, lobbyists, or state contractors. A panel of three human resources experts would determine 100 eligible candidates. The four legislative leaders could then remove five candidates each, striking a total of 20 names from the list. The panel would then randomly select seven people from the remaining list, consisting of two Democrats, two Republicans, and three independents. The four legislative leaders would each select one candidate to complete the commission.
The final map would need the support of seven commission members, including at least two Democrats and two Republicans. If the commission can't agree, the top Republican and Democratic justices on the state Supreme Court would appoint one "special commissioner" who would hold all the power in drawing the final map.
The lawsuit challenging the initiative argues that the measure doesn't meet constitutional requirements because it does not change the "structure" and "procedure" of the Illinois Legislature. The state Supreme Court historically has held a narrow definition of that clause, for instance, in rejecting previous attempts to put a term-limits question on the election ballot.
"It's not exactly defined," Christopher Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, said. "Anything is possible in front of the Supreme Court."
The only voter initiative to make it on the ballot, let alone be passed by voters was the "cutback amendment" pushed by then-political activist and current Gov. Pat Quinn in 1980. It changed the size of the House and how residents elect legislators.
The state Board of Elections decides on a final ballot by Aug. 22, but that deadline could change if courts rule on the proposal.