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Democrats flex muscle in passing redistricting changes
By Chase Castle | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 4/15/2010 12:05 AM

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SPRINGFIELD - The state Senate squeezed through a proposal along partisan lines Wednesday that changes how the state's political map is drawn but ultimately leaves decisions in incumbent lawmakers' hands.

The Democratic-led state Senate approved the proposal 36-22, with no Republicans supporting it. It faces an uncertain future but one filled with potential for political manipulation.

Wednesday's vote means the proposal cleared the first of three hurdles before the state could successfully change the mapmaking process, which determines what areas lawmakers represent. The Democratic proposal now heads to the Democratic-controlled House. If votes continue along party lines, the legislation would fall one vote short of the required three-fifths majority needed to put it on the ballot.

Republicans find themselves in the position of possibly explaining to voters why no changes are better than changes supported by Democrats, who will accuse the GOP of killing reform.

"We realize they need one of our votes to do it, but it's something we still need to discuss," said Sarah Wojcicki, spokeswoman for House Republican leader Tom Cross of Oswego. Wojcicki said she's unsure whether any House Republicans will support the Democratic districting process.

Democrats, meanwhile, defended their plan.

State Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Democrat from Chicago and the plan's lead sponsor, said current law has too few criteria for mapping a district, which is why he endorsed adding protections that would empower districts containing minority voters.

"The current law also has a flaw in that it ends up in a game of chance, where the mappers of our great state's ... map are essentially selected by a pick from a hat," he said.

Following the 2000 census, a Democratic name was drawn from a hat, thereby giving Democrats the tiebreaking vote and ability to control the mapmaking process, which they used to gain complete control of Illinois government throughout this decade. A Republican name was drawn following the 1990 census and the resulting GOP-friendly map did help produce Republican gains, though the party was unable to sustain them.

If the proposal approved Wednesday becomes law, it would no longer require that two House districts perfectly fit within the borders of a corresponding Senate district. The proposal also would create a "special master" to settle disputes between lawmakers who can't agree to a new map, rather than settle deadlocks with a random drawing.

State Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Republican from Hinsdale, criticized the Democratic proposal's continued use of fellow legislators to draft a new map instead of nonelected officials.

"This is the ultimate incumbent-protection program because basically, at every step of the process ... politicians are in control," Dillard said.

Senate Democrats previously rejected the leading Republican redistricting proposal. That plan would have put the process before a temporary commission made up of four Democrats, four Republicans and a ninth, independent member appointed by the other commissioners. That commission would come up with a map and send it to lawmakers for final approval. If lawmakers rejected two proposed maps, the commission members would get to pick the one they wanted.

State Rep. Mike Fortner, a Republican from West Chicago, agreed that the Democratic proposal fails to address what he sees as the underlying problem: lawmakers drawing their own legislative map.

"This results in all sorts of problems with legislators protecting their own interests," Fortner said. "It doesn't serve the public."