Column 8-11-16

The Olympics are here!  I don’t know about you but I can’t seem to get enough of the games. Admittedly, I don’t get to watch as many of the events as I would like, but I did have a chance to see Michael Phelps dominate the competition Tuesday night.  Something about the medal ceremony just sends a chill down my spine and a sense of pride in country through my veins.


What is it exactly that makes the Olympics so great?  Is it the fact that seemingly everyone across the world is watching the same exact thing you are with the same level of anticipation?  Is it the stories of overcoming personal struggles to achieve Olympic gold?  Or maybe it’s the athletes like Oksana Chusovitina, the Uzbekistani gymnast who competed against other gymnasts who were all half her age?  For me it’s all of these things.  And one more thing keeps it all interesting – the International Olympic Committee ensures that all athletes have a fair chance of winning.


Just imagine if one country was able to control all of the proceedings. What if the host country for the Olympics was allowed to design a pool that favored its own swimmers? Or what if they were able to design a track that ensured Brazil had the shortest distance to the finish line? Surely this would cause international uproar, right?


Interestingly enough, in Illinois we have a system that allows for just that.  Not for athletes, mind you, but for politicians.  I’m serious.  The party in power in Illinois is legally allowed to draw their own maps and make their own legislative districts.  We wouldn’t allow this in sports, so why do we allow this when it comes to making decisions that affect you and your family?  Well, we don’t have to, because 570,000 Illinoisans signed a petition saying they’ve had enough of this corrupt system.


For those of you who may not know, the Independent Map Amendment committee is a bi-partisan grassroots organization that seeks to take the authority for drawing maps away from the politicians in Springfield and turn the job over to a non-partisan commission.  This would ensure that maps were not drawn to favor a certain party, but to be fair to all voters.  Illinois’ current system of drawing legislative maps would be puzzling to most any geographer, but to a seasoned political operative it makes perfect sense.


Let me give you an example of our current system. I will use our very own congressional district, the Illinois 17th.  The 17th Congressional District begins in Rockford.  It doesn’t contain all of Rockford, just the portions of Rockford that tend to favor a certain party (If you look at a Google Maps version of the district, you can see that the party in power went as far as to split residential streets between congressional districts).  The district runs through Freeport covering all or most of Stephenson, Jo Daviess, Whiteside, Carroll, Rock Island, and Henry Counties.  From here it gets interesting; the district then runs across several other counties to include the city of Galesburg and then the district hooks east to catch part of Peoria.  Not all of Peoria, of course, but just enough of Peoria to help that same political party.  Amazing, who would have ever thought that Rockford and Peoria would be in the very same congressional district?  The Speaker of the Illinois House, that’s who.


Iowa, our neighbors to the east, adopted an independent commission much the same as the Illinois ballot initiative.  And wouldn’t you know it – it worked out beautifully.  I would encourage you right now to go to your computer or phone and type “Iowa Congressional District Map” into the search bar.  You can then compare that map to the map of the Illinois 17th Congressional District.  Look closely and you will see that Iowa’s commission drew a map that actually makes sense!  Whole counties are contained within congressional districts instead of splitting up neighborhoods by households to maximize one party’s electoral advantage.  So what is stopping us from doing this in Illinois?


Well, as of right now, what is stopping us from reforming our system of drawing legislative maps is a challenge from a lawyer with deep ties to the current Speaker of the Illinois House.  His challenge was upheld by a judge from – can you guess which county? – Cook County.  At this moment, the fate of Independent Maps Amendment hangs in the balance.  I would love to say that I think the Illinois Supreme Court will overrule the lower court’s ruling, but I would hate to give you false hope.  At this moment, it looks like partisanship has won.


But I refuse to give up hope. Too many Illinoisans have made their voices heard for this issue to just go away quietly.  So we will keep fighting.


To wrap things up, I think I will go ahead and do something I have not yet done with this column and I never thought I would do, but – I’m going to quote President Barack Obama.  Earlier this year during his State of the Union address he said: “We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around.”  President Obama, on this issue you and I are in complete agreement.

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