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The People vs. The Parties: Partisan Lawyers Try to Prevent Illinois Voters from Ending Gerrymandering

by Carl Wicklander, published

After making its case in a Cook County courtroom, a group fighting to reform the partisan drawing of congressional districts still faces one more crucial deadline ahead of achieving its goal of appearing on the November 8 ballot.

The Independent Map Amendment, often called Independent Maps, seeks to remove elected officials from drawing legislative districts in favor of a panel that includes Republicans, Democrats, and independents. The proposed panel and new method for drawing the maps would not go into effect until 2021, following the next decennial census.

In May, Independent Maps officially submitted more than half a million petition signatures for their ballot initiative. Days later, the People's Map, a group opposed to the citizen-led effort to reform map drawing, filed a lawsuit. Leading the charge is Michael Kasper, an attorney long connected to some of Illinois' top Democrats, including Speaker of the House Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton.

Late last week, Circuit Court judge Diane Larsen heard arguments from each side in a pivotal hearing that could help decide whether the Independent Map Amendment appears on the November ballot.

According to Bob Schneider of Chicago Now, Larsen may be the best judge Independent Maps could hope to hear the case:

"Judge Larsen made news last year when she ruled state workers would not be allowed to be paid in full while Illinois does not have a budget. So, it is safe to say King (i.e. House Speaker Michael) Madigan is not pulling her strings."

To bolster its case, Independent Maps cited a US Supreme Court ruling that upheld the prerogative of Arizona to have an independent panel drawing legislative districts instead of government officials.

Independent Maps chair Dennis FitzSimons noted, "I don't believe there was one individual on that ballot initiative committee (The People's Map) in the courtroom." However:

"Who was in the courtroom was the general counsel of the Democratic Party of Illinois, so I think it's pretty clear that entrenched interests are trying to prevent this initiative from getting in front of voters."

According to Lori Lightfoot, a lawyer for the Independent Map Amendment, the judge rejected several of the plaintiff's arguments:

"While they won't say it, they effectively conceded an argument that they had strongly argued two years ago and that they put into their complaint this year, that the whole notion of redistricting is something that is not appropriate as a citizen initiative."

Without a state budget, Illinois' political dysfunction has been on public display for more than a full fiscal year. Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and Democratic Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, the latter of whom has served his post for most of the last three decades, have locked political horns with little progress. The chance to vote on redistricting reform may prove a welcome sight for Illinois voters.

A ruling from Judge Larsen is expected on July 21 and the November ballot must be finalized by August 26. Both sides expect further appeals to go up to the Illinois Supreme Court. If additional lawsuits and other legal hurdles arise, redistricting reform could yet be left off the ballot.

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