Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Loss of IL Congressional seat likely to hurt state GOP more than Democrats

Illinois' Congressional Republicans are likely to shoulder the brunt of the impact of newly released Census figures -- which confirmed that Illinois is a loser, at least in terms of seats in Congress -- in 2012, thanks to Illinois' malformed redistricting process.

The population data released by the U.S. Census bureau Tuesday serves as the basis for reapportionment, where states gain or lose Congressional districts -- and as a result, pull in D.C. -- to accommodate for population shifts and to uphold the principle of "one person, one vote."

This new 2010 headcount showed that although the number of Illinoisans have increased since the last Census 10 years ago, there have been greater gains made by other states.

As a result, the Land of Lincoln will lose one of its current 19 Congressional districts; come the next general election in 2012, there will be 18 elections for U.S. Representative from Illinois.

But Democrats can -- and are expected -- to use population data, skilled mapmakers, and political voting data to draw a new Congressional map which will minimize the GOP's chances of winning election in as many of those 18 districts as possible.

That's because Illinois gives the General Assembly the power to create and approve the Congressional districts, subject to the approval of the governor, just as with other laws. (The congressional redistricting process is created by state law, and does not follow the same process as the state legislative redistricting process.)

While at first glance, that may suggest there's some desired independence between the map-drawers and Congressional incumbents/candidates, there is not much in practice.

Both chambers Illinois General Assembly are currently controlled by Democrats, who can use their power to increase their party's likelihood of electoral success by strategically lumping voters into districts to minimize the number of seats Republicans will be able to win.

Equally troubling is that in the past -- notably, the 2001 redistricting cycle, where Illinois again was faced with the loss of a Congressional seat -- Illinois' delegation has played a "hands on" role in developing the districts in which many would go on to run. Back then, Democrat Rep. David Phelps was assigned the short stick by the other members of the Illinois delegation, as he was re-drawn into a district composed primarily of voters who leaned Republican and which he had never represented (but where incumbent GOP Rep. John Shimkus had). Phelps lost the election.

An Associated Press story earlier this week noted that State Sen. Kwame Raoul, the chairman of the Illinois Senate's Redistricting Committee, believes that the General Assembly is not inclined to defer to the Congressional delegation this time around ... or at least there's no such plan currently.

But while that's far from a guarantee that the Congressional delegation will not play a significant role in the process, there's also no guarantee that the General Assembly won't play political games with the new Congressional map.

The confirmed loss of one Illinois Congressional seat Tuesday only drives home the need for transparency and public involvement in the redistricting process.

We hope that just as Democratic leaders in the General Assembly have voiced support for such opportunities in their district-drawing process, they would recognize the need for such opportunities at the Congressional level and follow through.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Reporters get the scoop on contribution limits, FOIA at ICPR co-sponsored workshop

Two wonky topics near and dear to ICPR’s heart – campaign finance reform and the Freedom of Information Act – were the subject of a media workshop sponsored by ICPR, the Chicago Headline Club and the Attorney General’s office today.

The Monday morning forum was designed to provide reporters with information about changes to the laws and answer their questions about their implementation. Audio recordings of the presentations can be accessed here.

Andy Naumann, the deputy director for disclosure at the Illinois State Board of Elections (SBE), and ICPR director Cindi Canary, outlined the state’s first-ever campaign contribution limits bill, which takes effect Jan. 1 – smack dab in the middle of the municipal campaign season, including the contest to be Chicago’s next mayor. (Check out ICPR's briefing book for reporters on the statute here.)

Until the law is fully implemented, some questions about how the limits and enforcement provisions created by the statute will remain unanswered. Those questions may linger well after the new year, when the law takes effect, because the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR) and the SBE are poised to announce an extension on the rule-making for the contribution limits law, Naumann said. Those rules, which the committee is tasked with approving, provide the SBE with direction on how to implement the contribution limits and disclosure system approved by lawmakers last year.

It’s unclear what affect, if any, the delay in rulemaking will have on the implementation of the bill. Even with their absence, the law takes effect Jan. 1.

The date those contribution limits go into effect will mark the one-year anniversary that Illinois’ updated open records law, FOIA, took effect.

One of the most significant improvements in that law was the permanent creation of the Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor, the state’s official open records czar. Cara Smith holds the PAC position and is responsible for mediating records request disputes and training officials on their duties to provide the public with access to government information.

Smith said her work has mainly been addressing three types of inquiries: general questions about the law, requests for review of records denials received by individuals, and pre-issuance reviews of records denials public bodies seek to make in specific instances.

These inquiries have inundated the Public Access Counselor’s office, which includes about 11 attorneys, Smith said, because public officials are paying attention to the need to abide by the law. For years, reporters and members of the public have complained that public bodies illegally ignored or denied records requests – which spurred the law changes, which took effect Jan. 1, 2010.

Smith offered a few suggestions for records requestors:

- Consider discussing lengthy or detailed requests with the public body. A conversation can help ensure that a request is understood correctly, and may help tailor broad request into a more specific (and useful) inquiry.

- If a public body requests direction from the Public Access Counselor for only a portion of your request, ask the body to provide the rest of the information that isn’t in question. That way, you will get timely access to at least some of the information sought.

- Specify the type of format in which you would like to receive your sought records. The FOIA specifies that units of government must provide records in electronic format, if feasible, if requested by the information-seeker.

- If your request has been denied, you have 60 calendar days to file an appeal with the Public Access Counselor. In return, the PAC has 60 days to respond or issue a binding opinion, with the option of issuing 21-business day extension to complete the response. Appeals can be mailed to:
Public Access Counselor,
Office of the Attorney General
500 S. 2nd St.
Springfield, IL 62706
Or e-mailed to publicaccess@atg.state.il.us

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

One after another, editorial boards tell lawmakers IL needs sunshine in redistricting process

Some of the fiercest advocates of government transparency – the news media – have joined the choir of Illinoisans who are demanding stronger sunshine requirements in a pending redistricting proposal.

Within the last day, the Bloomington Pantagraph, Champaign News-Gazette noted and the Springfield State Journal-Register each have editorialized in need of improving the public participation portion of Senate Bill 3976.

The bill, which is pending in the House, would mandate that after the release of Census data next spring, lawmakers hold four public hearings to discuss the state’s House and Senate districts and …

And that’s it.

Lawmakers wouldn’t have to show the public proposed maps before they’re approved. They wouldn’t have to take public input on ways to improve those districts. And legislators wouldn’t have to share tools and resources with the public which would empower residents to create their own redistricting proposals.

As the News-Gazette noted: “There's nothing wrong with pre-map hearings. But what about holding public hearings on the map Democratic leaders ultimately propose? How about releasing the census information and allowing various interest groups to draft and propose their own maps? Democrats rejected amendments to do that.”

The Bloomington Pantagraph correctly notes that: “There is nothing requiring public input after the maps and have been drawn — the most critical part.”

And a baffled Springfield State Journal-Register questions why, as we approach the two-year anniversary of Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s arrest on corruption charges, lawmakers have yet to embrace one of the simplest reform possible: Sunshine. “It’s as if legislative leaders simply can’t quite let go of the old ways,” the editorial board laments.

We agree.

The bill currently awaits action in the House, which is scheduled to come back into session in early January.

That gives lawmakers ample time to respond to these criticisms by beefing up the transparency mandates in the proposal.

Contact your state representative and state senator and tell them what you think.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Death by AV

The just-concluded Veto Session ended substantive work on bills that were passed by the legislature but vetoed by the governor. The session presented a teachable moment on the use and misuse of amendatory vetoes.

Among the bills returned to the legislature were four dealing with the Election Code: HB 723, HB 4842, HB 5206, and SB 1662. Each of these were amendatorily vetoed by Gov. Quinn. Two of the vetoes were overridden, while the other two bills died. None of the AVs were enacted.

All four amendatory vetoes added new language without changing what was already in the bill. The two bills enacted over the veto were HB 723, which addressed the filling of ballot vacancies after a primary, and HB 5206, dealing with the removal of dead people from voter rolls. Gov. Quinn added language to both of them to put advisory questions on the ballot. The two bills that died in Veto Session were HB 4842, which directed the State Board of Elections to produce an on-line voters guide during primary elections and which Gov. Quinn amended to create open primaries; and SB1662, changing the timeframe in which a new political committee must file a statement of organization during the 30 days before an election, to which Gov. Quinn added language dealing with local ethics ordinances.

Illinois is unusual among the 50 states in giving the governor the power to recommend changes to bills, in addition to vetoing a measure outright. But the power is limited, and should be used sparingly. As it is, the legislature plays enough games that short circuit the deliberative process. The governor should take the high road and find sponsors for his bills in January, just like everybody else.

We hope that Gov. Quinn will work with the legislature in the next session, both to enact the bills that failed as a result of his intervention and, separately if necessary, to move bills to address the new areas of his concern. The deliberative process should be allowed to work, especially when the amendatory veto merely adds new sections that have not previously been deliberated by the legislature.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Senate redistricting proposal falls short on transparency

Redistricting is among the weighty issues the General Assembly took a crack at this veto session. But like so many other reform issues lawmakers have tackled, this well-intentioned legislation falls a little short.

Senate Bill 3976, sponsored by Senate Redistricting Chairman Kwame Raoul, touches on two important portions of the map-drawing process: Minority voting rights and transparency.

The first section of the bill requires map-drawers to create crossover, coalition and influence districts, whenever possible, after following federal and state rules including the Voting Rights Act. These types of districts help minority voters who constitute less than a majority of an area’s voting age populations to elect representatives of their choice and influence the outcome of elections. (See p. 16 of this redistricting guide from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund for more information.)

ICPR endorses this portion of the bill.

But the second portion, which purportedly seeks to bring sunshine into the redistricting process, leaves much room for improvement. Historically, map-drawing – which is of huge importance to both Republicans and Democrats, and a process which one party tries to single-handedly control – has been conducted in secrecy. While both chambers have held some committee meetings to discuss the public’s needs, when it’s time to put the pen to paper, the public hasn’t been invited.

Public involvement and oversight in this process is sorely needed.

But the legislation would mandate that lawmakers hold four meetings in different parts of the state following the release of Census data, which is expected in early 2011 … and that’s it.

There’s no requirement that the public be given an opportunity to chime in on draft maps, before they become law and establish the districts that will stand for 10 years. And there’s no mandate that the state provide Illinoisans with the tools to draw their own maps for consideration.

ICPR testified on this bill in committee Tuesday. Democrats who control the committee and chamber swatted down proposed GOP amendments which mirrored ICPR’s suggestions to improve transparency.

Despite those concerns, Republicans are joining Democrats in supporting the bill because it is an improvement over the status quo. It passed the Senate on a 53-4 vote and is now awaiting action in the House.

ICPR urges you to contact your lawmakers and tell them you don’t want them to shut out the public this redistricting cycle. Urge them to support additional public hearings, and tell them that when next Spring rolls around, you want to provide input on redistricting maps.