Friday, July 31, 2009

Picking the Pickers: Redistricting Update

Experts who testified at a Senate Redistricting Committee meeting this week didn’t paint a pretty picture about Illinois’ current redistricting process.

In fact, they described the process that produces new legislative district maps every 10 years as downright awful.

In Illinois, the redistricting process is dominated by lawmakers: The state Constitution gives the entire General Assembly the first crack at drawing the boundaries for state legislative districts. But if lawmakers can’t reach an agreement, the Republican and Democratic leaders in each chamber get to appoint one citizen and one lawmaker, each, to a special eight-member Legislative Redistricting Commission. If that panel can’t agree on a map, either, the redistricting process gets thrown into the hands of one randomly chosen ninth member of the commission.

During each redistricting process over the last three decades, lawmakers have butted heads over the map – ultimately going to the “tiebreaker round,” and throwing the process into the hands of one party.

As the Daily Herald editorial board notes today, experts have acknowledged allowing one party to control the state’s map is a bad way to operate. Redistricting greatly impacts future elections because it determines which residents can vote for which representatives. Left in the hands of one party, redistricting can – and has – produced districts that greatly favor candidates of that party.

Now, in advance of the 2011 redistricting process that will follow next year’s Census, the Illinois Senate is hosting once-a-month committee hearings around the state about redistricting.

Former State Senator and Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch, drawing from her experience as a delegate to the 1970 Constitutional Convention that produced the current redistricting process, explained that the tiebreaker option was supposed to be, in essence, the “nuclear option.” The thought of winner-take-all was supposed to encourage political parties to work together, for fear that they would lose the tiebreaker. There was also some hope among the delegates that the ninth member would be a "negotiator" or moderating influence, not someone who would side with one party against the other.

But, that wasn’t the case in 1981, nor 1991, nor 2001. And there’s no reason to think 2011 will be any different – unless the system is changed.

Roosevelt University Political Science Professor Paul Green said that the tiebreaker provision has made redistricting a partisan answer to a question that is not supposed to be partisan.

Atlhough Green and Netsch were asked to testify about the history of redistricting in Illinois, both said that the system must be changed to allow people who aren’t lawmakers or partisan agents to have a role in the process.

Green also noted what amounts to the elephant in the redistricting committee room: Although many members of the General Assembly have voiced concerns about the current redistricting process, few – if any – are willing to be “political martyrs,” and sacrifice their own chance to be re-elected for the sake of reform.

That’s part of what makes redistricting reform in Illinois so challenging. Lawmakers historically have demonstrated reluctance to change the status quo. Even though – as Green aptly pointed out – that redistricting is largely to blame for Illinois’ woefully noncompetitive state legislative elections.

Illinois needs a better redistricting system. We need a system that ensures the districts that are created just two years from now foster active political discussion and elect lawmakers that are responsive to their voters. We need a system that ensures that the 177 members of the General Assembly look as much like the other 13 million residents of Illinois as possible.

Several plans to ameliorate the current system have already been drafted – including proposals from several lawmakers, the Illinois Reform Commission, and the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.

We hope the Illinois General Assembly gives these plans serious consideration, and creates a new process that is transparent and reflects the desires of the public. ICPR supports the principles recently adopted by Americans for Redistricting Reform.

The Senate Redistricting Committee is scheduled to next meet on Aug. 18 in Springfield. An audio recording of the hearings will be made available through the General Assembly's website.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Compare and Contrast

The big corruption story out of New Jersey last week sounds, in broad strokes, eerily familiar -- lots of people, in and out of government, in a state famous for corruption, rounded up on charges of cheating the public. I can't think of a public corruption case in Illinois involving religious leaders and kidney traffickers, but the point isn't to see which state is worse, but rather to ensure good government. Neither state is doing well on that score.

What struck me were the follow-up stories. From New Jersey came widespread condemnation of the alleged corruption. One story quoted Gov. Jon Corzine as saying, "The scale of corruption we're seeing as this unfolds is simply outrageous and cannot be tolerated."

Compare that with the normal reaction from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley when corruption is found in his town. Rather than broadly condemning corruption, he has tended personalized the response, blaming "a few bad apples," or blaming the people who were convicted for “disgrac[ing their own] name.”

This focused response results in public messaging which is ambiguous at best, or tolerant at worst, as when Robert Sorich, head of Daley's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, was convicted in 2006, and Mayor Daley announced, "I am saddened by the verdict for these men and their families," while his brother and top political advisors feted Sorich with a fundraiser at a local Bridgeport church.

Clarity counts for a lot. Even, especially, from those in charge, in a position to set the tone by saying clearly and simply what's right and what's wrong.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

If only we didn't need FOIA

One of the most successful stories of the spring legislative session was the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reform measure, SB 189, now on the governor's desk. The bill will go a long way to rebalancing the interests of the public in getting access to government records. The Northwest Herald recently wrote that Gov. Quinn "should sign the bill now and send a message that his administration is serious about improving public access to government information." We couldn't agree more.

A couple of recent stories show why a stronger FOIA is needed. These same stories also show how units of government can make FOIA a lot less necessary. In one, the Better Government Association announced a lawsuit against the Office of Cook County Board President Todd Stroger to compel production of phone records. In another, a suburban school district stopped making information packets available to the public in advance of board meetings. And while not strictly a third FOIA story, the Trib this morning wrote about a possible Open Meetings Act violation, where a member of a village council privately e-mailed other members about an upcoming vote.

Let's remember that the Freedom of Information Act is not the reason why the public deserves access to government records; it is only the means by which that access is guaranteed. The reason why is because it is our government, and we the public have a right to know what government is doing for us, to us, and in our name. FOIA and the Open Meetings Act are like umbrellas -- you want one when it rains, but you don't look forward to using one every day. Having a stronger FOIA will help people better understand what government is doing, but units of government could make that task even easier by being more open with all of their actions.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

D2 Day Interim Report

Last week we went out on a limb and predicted that today's papers would be full of stories about how much money candidates raised in the first six months of this year. And events have proven us correct. (Although, to be fair, we didn't go all that far from the tree trunk on that one.) Now that the reports are in, there are some interesting tidbits in the numbers. A few stragglers are yet to file, but here are a few observations:

* State Rep. Jack Franks raised more money than anyone. Most of it from relatives, but still, his $1.3M is more than any of the Four Tops, more than any sitting statewide official, more than any known challenger.

* The other surprising name on the list of top fundraisers is Sen. Dale Righter, who reported $353K in receipts; putting him comfortably in the Top Ten.

* State Rep. Julie Hamos is sitting on more money than the entire Democratic Party of Illinois. Combining her cash on hand with her investments, she's got $530K, while the venerable DPI reported $473K available. And she's not alone -- Sen. James DeLeo reports $703K, and Rep. Jay Hoffman has been sitting on a pile for years (it's now at $1.2M). Senate Democratic Leader James Clayborne reports $653K, all of it in cash.

We'll have more analysis in the weeks to come. Check back for more!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

De-rigging Redistricting

The Illinois Constitution requires the state to redraw its state legislative and Congressional district boundaries every 10 years, following the national census. This process, known as redistricting, greatly impacts future elections because it determines which voters will pick which representatives.

Ideally, districts will be drawn to maximize competitiveness, foster active political discussion and reflect the uniqueness of communities.

But practice hasn't live up to the ideal. Indeed, many have described redistricting as the process by which elected officials choose their constituents. In the hands of a skilled mapmaker, for example, districts can be drawn to favor one political party, thus allowing them to maintain control of the district and its representation in upcoming elections. Districts also can be drawn to protect incumbents from likely challengers, or crafted so that two incumbents are put in the same district and forced to either drop out or run against each other.

The redistricting process outlined by the Illinois Constitution calls for the General Assembly to draw the state's legislative district boundaries. If legislators fail to reach agreement, then a Legislative Redistricting Commission is convened, with 8 members dived evenly between Republicans and Democrats. If that, too, fails, a "tiebreaker" of sorts goes into effect -- and one new member of the Commission, either a Republican or a Democrat, is chosen at random and gets the final say on what Illinois' districts will be for the next 10 years.

In each of the last three remaps, not only has the legislative process failed, but the 8-member Commission also failed, so the tie-breaker delivered control of the process into one party's hands. In each instance, the party that won the tiebreaker created districts which greatly favored their party's candidates, giving them an incalculable advantage in elections for the Illinois House and Senate for the ensuing decade.

There has been broad acknowledgement that Illinois' redistricting process leaves much to be desired. While it seems all would agree that Illinois needs a system which ensures all residents receive fair and equal representation, there is not a consensus on how to redesign the current system or even over whether changes need to be focused on the Constitution or on practices within the legislature. Many, particularly Democrats, are hopeful that the legislature will write a map in 2011 without convening a Commission, despite the odds.

The Illinois Senate has formed a Redistricting Committee, which is scheduled to hold four meetings this summer to hear testimony on redistricting. The first meeting is tentatively scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday, July 22, at the Thompson Center, 16th floor, in Chicago. Dawn Clark Netsch, Northwestern University law professor and ICPR board member, and Paul Green of Roosevelt University are among those scheduled to testify.

If you're in the Chicago area, we encourage you to attend. Future meetings of the Committee are planned for Peoria (August 19), Carbondale (September 16), and Springfield (October 14); for updates and to confirm times and locations, go here.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Disclosure Update

One week from today the newspapers will be full of stories about how much money candidates have raised in the last six months. That's because one week from yesterday is the deadline for filing semi-annual D2 disclosure reports with the State Board of Elections.

Campaign finance is one form of disclosure that lets the public know about potential (and actual) conflicts of interest that elected officials may have. The other big disclosure form required of office holders is the Statement of Economic Interest. That was due to be filed with the Secretary of State by May 1. The SoS Index Division then scans the documents into PDF format and posts them to the web. As of today, over two months later, most (but, as of yesterday, not all) current legislators' forms are posted. Get their forms here.

Not posted, and not even filed, are forms from candidates for office who are not otherwise required to file. Candidates running in the 2010 elections won't have to file until they submit their petitions (they have to submit the receipt for the SEI along with their petitions). And what's more, they won't have to file again unless they win. In a curious loophole that benefits challengers over incumbents, they do not have to file updates next May 1. So check back for more Statements of Economic Interest, and don't forget D2s next week.