Ironically, the man after whom we named the creation of bizarrely shaped voting districts, meant to give one party an advantage, was one of the least partisan politicians in early America.
It was only after a lifetime of mistreatment by political parties that Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed legislation that created a state senate district in Essex County, Mass., that resembled a salamander, or as the Boston Gazette put it a Gerry-mander. Even so, he said the practice was highly disagreeable.
Those words echo the sentiments of a group that is trying to place an amendment to the Illinois Constitution on the November ballot. It would take redistricting out of the hands of politicians by creating a non-partisan commission to draw the state legislative district maps after the 2020 census.
The group is called “Yes! For Independent Maps,” and they need to get more than 298,000 signatures on their petition by May 4. The amendment they’re proposing is lengthy, primarily because it contains an elaborate series of checks and balances to guarantee fairness and transparency for a process that has previously been anything but.
Briefly, they propose that interested citizens would apply to be commission members. A panel appointed by the Auditor General would first eliminate any lobbyists, state contractors, and obvious partisans.
Then they would select the 100 most qualified applicants based on things they would probably have to guess at, such as analytical skills, impartiality, fairness, and diversity.
Once chosen, Illinois’ four top legislative leaders would each be able to strike 5 applicants from the pool. Following that, a lottery would select two Democrats, two Republicans, and three Independents, “all proportionally representing Illinois’ five judicial districts.” The remaining four commissioners would be chosen by the aforementioned four top legislative leaders to make certain the commission reflects “Illinois’s diverse demographics and geography.”
Those 11 people would then draw districts of equal population that were contiguous, didn’t favor or disfavor any race or language, respected the geographic integrity of local governments and communities sharing common interests, were non-partisan, and didn’t try to keep incumbents in their current districts. Their work would be completely open to the public.
Yes, it’s hard to imagine that an idealistic plan like this could work in a state that is as corrupt and unscrupulous as Illinois. But 97 percent of House incumbents won last time, and only about a third of them had a challenger. That’s a recipe for regression, crony-ism, and waste, so it’s time to try something better. Find out more at IndependentMaps.org
It’s essential to note that because of Article XIV, Section 3 of the Illinois Constitution, “Amendments [proposed by petition] shall be limited to structural and procedural subjects contained in Article IV (the state legislature).” That means they apply only to state legislative districts. Congressional districts would remain as they are now.
Elbridge Gerry signed the Declaration of Independence, but refused to sign the Constitution because it lacked a Bill of Rights. John Adams appointed him to a diplomatic mission to negotiate with French Foreign Minister Tallyrand specifically because of his famous political impartiality.
When the mission refused a request for bribes from three French agents, negotiations broke down, a failure the Federalists blamed on Gerry, ruining his reputation.
He was eventually vindicated and, primarily because of those Federalist attacks, reluctantly joined the Democratic Republicans. It will actually be an honor to Gerry when the last gerrymandered district is honestly redrawn.