Eye On Illinois: Sox fans, mapping reformers enter a season of real hope

Is this the year?

Baseball fans recognize the optimism embedded in each opening day, and while the White Sox do seem headed in the right direction, the question today refers to another topic that often leaves the hopeful frustrated: legislative map reform.

Republicans Tuesday introduced an amendment to Senate Bill 1325 that would create an independent commission to draw political boundaries rather than leave it to lawmakers. The language will be familiar to anyone who remembers a proposed constitutional amendment from 2019, one which had 37 cosponsors but died for lack of a hearing.

“Voters shouldn’t have to rely on politicians who draw maps solely to fulfill their self-serving interests,” said chief sponsor Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, during an online conference. “Last year, 18 Democrats in the Illinois Senate signed on to a constitutional amendment supporting an independent mapmaking commission. We’ve taken the language of that constitutional amendment and we’re proposing to do just that by statute.”

The odds tend to be slim for any proposal that calls for the ruling party to cede some of its power. But the Democrats’ leadership structure has changed significantly this year and Gov. JB Pritzker faces an uncertain re-election campaign, so the incentives have rarely tipped more in Republicans’ favor.

Beyond those considerations are the complications of delayed Census data, which Republicans argue makes it even more unfair for Democrats to draw maps using their old strategies. Creating a new commission to handle this task every decade is a much more meaningful change than just managing the COVID-wrought complexities of late numbers, but the GOP may as well use every arrow in the quiver.

According to Capitol News Illinois, the amendment sets up a process whereby the Illinois Supreme Court’s chief justice and the court’s senior member from a different political party would appoint a 16-member Independent Redistricting Commission. That body would have seven Democrats, seven Republicans and two independents. It could not include anyone elected to a state, federal or local government office within the preceding four years.

Even fair map advocates must admit a new process isn’t a panacea. Illinois’ demographics aren’t so homogenous that it can be cleanly sliced to guarantee everyone a shot at equal representation, and that goes far beyond political leanings and racial identifiers by factoring in things like wealth, religion, education and rural-urban divisions. Republicans and Democrats have internal struggles over party directions regardless of boundaries.

Still, redistricting reform is broadly popular because it evinces a break from historical cronyism. Attempting to remove politics from the process is a good-faith effort in restoring trust in government. All parties could benefit from that outcome.

If this isn’t the year it may never happen. Yet hope springs eternal.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Local News Network. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.