As a young journalist, I got the chance to cover an election in a small Mexican border town near Yuma, Ariz. People I interviewed, with an interpreter’s help, told me about putting their ballots into a box early in the day and noticing it already was stuffed. Others described seeing federales pull out of line people who were waiting to vote.
Those people knew what was happening. Their election was being rigged. Within hours, scores of them took to the streets in protest. They literally revolted.
In Illinois, our elections are rigged and rotten, too. More of us need to wake up to that realization. The fix is put in when politicians from one party or the other draw political districts to their own party’s advantage after each census, which will happen next in 2021. In Illinois, both Republicans and Democrats have done the rigging over the decades. It’s wrong every time.
While it is demonstrably true that partisan gerrymandering is more extreme elsewhere, what’s wrong is wrong. Politicians have a conflict of interest when they play political cartographer. And when they do in Illinois, the result is a lack of meaningful choices for all of us. Chances are good that if you think back to the last several times you cast ballots, you probably didn’t have many real options.
In 2018, nearly half of the Illinois General Assembly races were uncontested. If you add in races where the victor won with 55 percent of the votes or more, then 82 percent of our state legislative races were not competitive. In 2016, it was even worse. Nearly 60 percent of the races were uncontested and more than 90 percent weren’t competitive.
There is a solution to this systemic wrong, but we have to be willing to demand change like those people did in Mexico.
A diverse coalition of 23 organizations in Illinois is supporting the Fair Map Amendment, which would ask voters if they want an independent citizens commission to draw congressional and state legislative districts. Commissioners would include people with Democratic, Republican and mixed voting records and no one group could adopt a map on their own. The commission’s work would be done in public. Commissioners would need to hold 20 hearings around the state before a map is proposed and 10 after one is proposed, but before adoption.
A similar process was conducted in California after the 2010 Census and, it’s worth noting, commissioners returned to the drawing table after public outcry over their first attempt. It’s also worth noting that nine more districts were drawn that elected minority officials than when politicians did the drawing. The same potential exists in Illinois with the Fair Maps Amendment, SJRCA 4/HJRCA 15.
Despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to curb gerrymandering, momentum is growing for independent redistricting. North Carolina lawmakers have been ordered by state judges to draw new maps. Citizens in Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Utah and Colorado have voted to end gerrymandering. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Gov. J.B. Pritzker both repeatedly pledged to end gerrymandering. Pritzker doubled down on his promise after the Supreme Court’s ruling, saying: “We’re going to have to make sure that here in Illinois we’re not gerrymandering, that we’re drawing maps that are fair and competitive. That’s what’s best for the voters of the state.”
He’s right, but state lawmakers must approve the amendment by May 3. Some politicians naturally want to preserve what gives them power and takes away yours. Gerrymandering is voter suppression. Are you willing to let it continue or will you rise up for your right to cast a ballot that counts?
Madeleine Doubek is executive director of CHANGE Illinois, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for ethical and efficient government.