CARBONDALE - The ugly details of democracy in Illinois were front and center Tuesday on the campus of Southern Illinois University Carbondale as a panel of state lawmakers heard from a string of experts on the pluses and minuses of redistricting in Illinois.
And while no single plan rose above others, most of those on hand agreed the state needs to change the means by which state legislators define and draw the districts they represent.
State Sen. David Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, first addressed the bipartisan panel of 11 state senators and said later that redistricting is the "ugliest, most partisan thing he'd seen in politics."
Redistricting of the state's legislative lines is required after every census, which is taken every decade. Since 1970, Democrats have led redistricting twice while Republicans have once.
The next redistricting in Illinois is scheduled next year. Critics of Illinois' system say it has taken power out of the hands of voters and, among other problems, has ensured incumbent dominance.
With that in mind, the panel, led by Chicago Democrat Sen. Kwame Raoul, has had forums throughout the state to consider ways of restructuring the way the state draws its legislative districts.
At SIUC, the lawmakers met a panel of experts from the Paul Simon Public Policy institute who have been investigating the issue. David Yepsen, executive director of the Simon Institute, former executive director Mike Lawrence and Prof. John Jackson presented their views and fielded questions from the panel.
Yepsen led off the discussion by briefing the panel on the redistricting system used in Iowa, where he covered state and national politics for 35 years. Iowa uses a computer-assisted method to help draw its legislative boundaries.
Such a system might or might not work in Illinois, Yepsen said.
"Illinois is four times larger than Iowa," he said. "I am not sure what works in Iowa will work in this state."
Yepsen said that an underlying issue in Illinois is the fact that many of the state's voters have lost confidence in state lawmakers.
Jackson was more pointed in his criticisms which included that, thanks to district lines drawn with the advantage of one party in mind, Illinois has "some of the ugliest districts in the world in terms of compactness."
For his part, Lawrence gave a review of a redistricting effort spearheaded within the Simon Institute in 2007. The institute plan won support in the Illinois House last year but was not called for a hearing in the Senate before the deadline to put it on the November 2008 ballot.
In particular, that institute proposal suggested a "de-nesting" of senate and representative districts. That plan would change the current arrangement, which sees pairs of the state's 118 representative districts fit inside the boundaries of a corresponding state senate district.
The Simon Institute proposal also called for an end to the random drawing that is used when the legislature and the governor can't agree on the newly-drawn districts. If a deadlock occurs under the current system, one party is chosen at random to have control over the mapmaking.
The last three re-drawings of the legislative map have been deadlocked, forcing lawmakers to use this luck-of-the-draw system.
But, Lawrence was quick to note that, while he was not advocating for the institute's plan in particular, there was no doubt the current redistricting policy leads to a lack of choice and representation for Illinois voters.
"I don't think this is a perfect plan, and I don't think that this is the only plan," Lawrence said. "I do think that when one party draws it, there is a tendency to have fewer competitive districts."
Source: The Southern