Illustration by Jason Schneider
Illustration: Jason Schneider

State Senator Julie Morrison of Deerfield is driving to Springfield on a Tuesday morning, enthusiastically talking up her provocative plan to reshape Illinois elections: Take the power to draw legislative boundaries out of the hands of sitting politicians and give it instead to an independent commission.

The idea, she says, is to demolish gerrymandered districts designed to protect incumbents, discourage challengers, suppress competitive elections, and favor the status quo in the General Assembly, where last year nearly 50 percent of all races went uncontested. The General Assembly drafts its own legislative boundaries for its 118 House and 59 Senate districts every 10 years, with the next remapping set for 2020. “Passing the bill would give the legislature greater credibility,” argues Morrison. “Right now, I don’t think people feel there’s as much trust as there ought to be.”

The state’s legislative map looks like a Rorschach test on steroids, with districts of all squiggly sizes and shapes. Take the 13th Senate District, which snakes along Lake Michigan from around Chicago Avenue to about 115th Street, including Streeterville, South Shore, and Englewood. Its elongated boundary has helped make it a Democratic stronghold that was represented by Barack Obama when he was a state senator. And suburban and downstate districts are also a hodgepodge of abstract designs. Remapping advocates say the districts are intentionally drawn to split up Republican toeholds and dilute the party’s statewide influence.

Even some entrenched Democrats, like Morrison, are embarrassed about the blatant gerrymandering. Introduced in February, her effort — the Fair Maps Amendment — is cosponsored by Ryan Spain, a Republican representative from Peoria. It’s also backed by a deep bench of Chicago-area activists, good government groups, and blue-chip corporate interests who in past years spent more than $6 million and countless hours unsuccessfully trying to dump the old system. The public craves change, too: The Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale found that 72 percent of likely voters would prefer that a commission draw the maps, which the institute says is a record high since it started asking the question in 2010.

The person who’s content with things just the way they are: Mike Madigan, whose Democratic Party controls the Senate, House, and governor’s office and, under state law, also controls the map. Morrison’s effort could spark a nasty political fight between the wily veteran House speaker and the neophyte governor. “If Governor Pritzker makes this a priority, then I don’t see any way he can do it without having a political battle with Madigan,” says Cindi Canary, a Chicago-based policy consultant who has worked on previous Illinois redistricting efforts.

Madigan’s minions have filed court challenges that squelched stabs at reform in 2014 and 2016. Tactically, though, things are different this time. Whereas those were grassroots efforts, Morrison is calling on the General Assembly to place a redistricting amendment on the 2020 ballot. Three-fifths of the House and Senate must vote in favor of that action.

Proponents of the Morrison-Spain bill are fervently counting on Pritzker — who has repeatedly vowed to veto a gerrymandered map even if the Dems draft it — to strongly back their plan. “We hope he will weigh in and exert his influence,” says Madeleine Doubek, executive director of Change Illinois, a nonprofit coalition that’s leading the remapping initiative and lobbying the governor and lawmakers this legislative session, which is scheduled to conclude at the end of May.

Unlike recently ousted Republican governor Bruce Rauner, who favored remapping but had scant political clout with the legislature, Pritzker’s influence could be considerable. He’s off to a decent start with the General Assembly, having signed a popular minimum wage bill while pressing for the legalization of sports betting and recreational marijuana (more state revenue, cha-ching!).

But Pritzker’s political support — along with his ability to infuse cash from his massive coffers into the campaigns of those who support him in a remapping effort — could have the reverse effect on Madigan and incite him to hamstring crucial parts of the governor’s legislative agenda. In an email statement, Pritzker’s office said: “He believes creating an independent commission to draw legislative maps is the best way to accomplish redistricting reform, but it’s important that any plan to do so reflect the gender, racial, and geographic diversity of the state.”

That last part about diversity is essential to advancing the 2020 referendum vote — and it’s where previous remap efforts floundered because of opposition from influential African Americans, including former ComEd lobbyist John T. Hooker, Chicago businessman Elzie Higginbottom, former ComEd CEO Frank Clark, and the Reverend Leon Finney Jr., CEO of the Woodlawn Organization, a community activist group. They feared an independent commission would reduce the number of districts dominated by black residents, particularly within Chicago’s South and West Sides, thereby diluting those communities’ political power in Springfield.

Backers of the newest referendum assert the proposed law will comply with voters’ rights and antidiscrimination laws. But such assurances may not be enough to assuage critics. Hooker, for one, harbors doubts: “If it comes back the same way as the last two times, I would not be in agreement with where they’re going.”

Echoing that sentiment is Maze Jackson, host on WVON-AM 1690 and a political consultant, who argues that black districts might be better off with the politically astute Madigan at the mapping helm. “While I have not been the biggest Madigan fan in the past, we have a common interest here,” says Jackson. Madigan didn’t support early drafts of the 2010 map, which Jackson says would have watered down black representation.

In an email, Madigan’s spokesman says the speaker hasn’t closely examined the remap legislation. The spokesman didn’t comment on any potential flare-up with the governor. Remapping advocates concede that they can’t answer how much political capital Pritzker would be willing to expend on a fight.

At this point, the governor seems more concerned with getting his progressive income tax amendment — a linchpin of his administration’s agenda — on the 2020 ballot. Redistricting could be in a holding pattern or just one cause too many. “My guess is remap is one of the governor’s top priorities, but the progressive income tax is No. 1,” says David Melton, a Chicago lawyer and redistricting specialist.

Anything can happen in Illinois politics, but should Pritzker stay on the sidelines, this latest remap drive could be over before it begins.