Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Reforming reapportionment not easy task

I have no doubt they're well intentioned, but the proposals being put forth by the League of Women Voters and other activist groups to reform the way in which legislative and congressional district boundaries are drawn isn't going to change a thing.

The problem isn't with procedures. It's with people. And in the end, partisan greed will overcome many people who get involved in any way with the political process.

THE ACTIVISTS, WHO have the support of former Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Collins (the guy who has George Ryan as a notch on his prosecutorial belt), are pushing for an amendment to the Illinois Constitution.

They're going the route of bypassing the Legislature. If they can get a substantial number of valid signatures on petitions, they can put a question on the ballot for the Nov. 2, 2010 elections on whether their proposed reform should become the new way in which districts are drawn.

To use the good government rhetoric, the drawing of political boundaries would be put in the hands of "independents" (a.k.a., those people to wishy washy to just admit their ideological leanings make them a Democrat or Republican).

These people would work together in a bipartisan manner to draw districts that would not be obsessed with clumping together voters sympathetic to the interests of the incumbent legislators.

THAT ULTIMATELY IS their motivation. They look at the statistic saying that 98 percent of incumbent legislators win on Election Day, and see something abhorrent. I see so many other advantages incumbents have that I doubt this one point would make much of a difference.

The only real way we could ensure significant turnover would be if our legislatures and Congress were to follow the lead of Mexico when it comes to picking presidents -- one six-year term, and you're out. No re-election possible.

I don't think any sane person in our country would want to go that route, because there is some benefit to experience -- particularly when it comes to weaving one's way through the legislative process.

My real problem with this so-called reform is because is relies supposedly on political "independents." Like I hinted earlier, I have always been wary of people who go out of their way to attach an "I" to their name, rather than a "D," an "R," a "G" or any other "third-party" label.

IT USUALLY TURNS out that these people have some pet issue that they want to put above all else, and the candidates they pick in various elections are usually of the same political party. The number of people who truly are independent of the current two-party political set-up we have in this country is so small as to be insignificant.

So the reform consists of putting reapportionment of political districts into the hands of people who are likely to favor officials supportive of their pet causes. It's only human nature. I don't think this panel would be any more worthy of putting together political maps than the current people -- the Illinois General Assembly, under the guidance of the Illinois Constitution.

Under the current set-up, the Legislature every decade redoes the map for Congressional districts and their own districts. They get to decide what boundaries will look like, and legislative leaders are known for trying to protect the interests of their own partisan bases.

The idea is that Democrats come from Chicago, with Republicans from the rural area. It used to be thought that suburban areas also were the province of the GOP, but in recent years Democratic legislators have been able to win in those areas.

WHICH IS WHY Republican officials like to draw districts that isolate the suburbs as much as possible from the city so as to protect their interests, while Democratic officials like to stretch the city influence into the suburbs as far as possible out of the theory that it's all one metropolitan area.

The issue that seems to irritate the reformers the most is the "lottery" that takes place in cases where the Legislature is unable to come up with a map and their own bipartisan commission makes no progress.

That is when both parties get put into a bowl (or once, a hat once worn by Abraham Lincoln himself), and the one that gets picked by the Illinois secretary of state gets to stack the commission to draw a map in accordance with its political wishes.

That is why the 1980s were a good decade for Democrats, while Republicans were able to gain influence in the 1990s, only to lose it in this decade.

BY 2012, WE'RE going to go through this process again, if there is no change as a result of next year's electinos.

The problem is human nature. Remember that when the drawing was written into the Illinois Constitution in the 1970s, it was seen as a "reform" measure. It was thought that political people would be so fearful of an all-or-nothing drawing that could leave their political party with "nothing" that they would break down and work together to draw a "fair" map.

Instead, what we have is a situation where our political people have partisan greed -- they see they have a chance to get "everything" and leave their political opponents with "nothing." It's too much of an opportunity to pass up to waste time on "bipartisan cooperation."

Like I wrote earlier, I wonder if the so-called independents would wind up bringing their own special concerns to the table. I don't trust them on this issue any more than I trust the political people.

IT ALSO INTRIGUED me to read a commentary published elsewhere earlier this week denouncing this proposal on the grounds that it really is a Democratic plot to seize control of the Legislature while under the disguise of "good government."

This conspiracy theory is based on the idea that the state Supreme Court would break a tie if an eight-member bipartisan board of independents truly couldn't come up with a map. As things stand now, the state's high court is majority Democratic and the chief justice is the former chief judge of the Cook County criminal court.

I don't know that I buy that, because the court goes out of its way to rotate its leadership around its members, meaning that the GOP also gets its moments of influence.

But it does reinforce the idea (accurately, I think) that the concept of "independent" can be deceptive.

IN THE END, there may not be any way to seriously overcome the influences that people have in their lives if they were asked to draw the political boundaries. Some of you may go so far as to suggest that computers be programmed to draw maps that spit out legislative districts of equal population without regard to who would represent those people.

As far as I'm concerned, forget that idea. Because then we have to get into the ideological pinnings of the people programming the computers.

What may sound harmless to some is downright radical to others.


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