Politics & Policy

How the Machine That Created Barack Obama Keeps Power in Illinois

Illinois assembly speaker Michael Madigan (Reuters photo: Sarah Conard)
Draw the legislative map to favor Democratic incumbents — to the point where most seats are uncontested.

‘The Illinois Constitution is meant to prevent tyranny, not to enshrine it,” so said Justice Robert Thomas of the Illinois Supreme Court in his dissent from the courts’ decision last Thursday to void a ballot initiative to take away the power of the state legislature to draw its own districts.

Spendthrift and incompetent government has turned Illinois into a basket case. Barack Obama’s adopted state ranks 47th in the nation in fiscal health; and, as the Huffington Post reported in March, it’s dead last in how much it leaves in the pockets of middle-class taxpayers. State pensions are underfunded by at least $100 billion. Last year, Chicago ranked among the top five cities in every violent-crime category — murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault

A major obstacle to ending Chicago’s woes has been a calcified state legislature that consistently rejects every sensible reform proposal. Its chief enforcer is Democrat Michael Madigan, the assembly speaker who has held an iron grip on that post for more than 30 years. He has used his ability to draw legislative maps every ten years to protect incumbents and ensure Democratic control of both houses, to the point that competition for seats has essentially disappeared. This November, 60 percent of legislative seats in Illinois will be uncontested. It was the same story in 2014.

This travesty of democracy compelled Independent Maps, a bipartisan group of citizens, to propose creating an independent commission to draw legislative maps. Supporters ranged from GOP governor Bruce Rauner and Republican senator Mark Kirk to former Democratic senator Adlai Stevenson III and Bill Daley, the former chief of staff to President Obama. Independent Map’s board included five African-American and three Latino members.

Their proposal would have established an eleven-member panel designed to minimize political influence and maximize public input during the mapmaking process. This would be in stark contrast to the current system, which the Chicago Tribune scorned as one in which “the two most important considerations are the voting history of residents and the addresses of incumbents.”

RELATED: In Illinois, the Blue-State Model Rolls toward Bankruptcy

In Republican-controlled states such as Ohio and Arizona, Democrats have backed the creation of similar commissions. But in Illinois, Speaker Madigan deployed lawyers to claim that the initiative shouldn’t even appear on the ballot. They claimed that it fell afoul of the state’s 1970 Constitution, which had granted voters the power to propose initiatives but only those that apply to legislative matters. A previous measure to create an independent commission had been blocked by the courts, so Independent Map wrote what they considered a bulletproof proposal.

But the four Democratic justices on the Illinois Supreme Court (elected with extensive support from public-employee unions, Speaker Madigan, and the trial lawyers) weren’t impressed. The Democratic majority on the court accepted the argument that the Constitutional provision on initiatives contained all sorts of hidden prohibitions on its use — their justification for throwing the Independent Maps proposal off the ballot on a four-to-three vote.

That prompted Illinois Supreme Court Justice Robert Thomas, a Republican, to say that the relevant parts of the Illinois constitution should now bear an Out of Service sign. In his dissent, he wrote:

The majority has irrevocably severed a vital lifeline created by the drafters [of the Constitution] for the express purpose of enabling later generations of Illinoisans to use their sovereign authority as a check against self-interest by the legislature.

His opinion addresses a real issue of self-interest and hypocrisy in politics today. Politicians always claim to support democracy, but they often come up with creative ways to limit the influence of pesky voters. Members of the political class in states other than Illinois are also trying to curb the voters’ most powerful tool.

#share#Twenty-four states currently allow voters to write their own laws through the initiative process, sidestepping gridlocked legislatures to pass statutes or constitutional amendments. Conservative voters have used the tool to impose term limits and curb racial quotas. At the same time, liberals have used initiatives to pass minimum-wage laws and tobacco taxes that were often blocked by legislatures where lobbyists held sway.

It’s just such citizen democracy that has irked the establishment in many states. In Arkansas, a Republican legislature passed a law demanding that paid petitioners publicly list their addresses, which has resulted in the harassment of several of them. Ohio passed a law requiring petitioners to be residents of the state. That law has since been struck down by the courts. Nevada has seen courts engage in absurd enforcement of the state’s requirement that an initiative address only a single subject.

But in no state has the assault on the initiative process been more relentless and sustained than in Colorado. This November, legislative leaders are backing a ballot measure of their own that would require sponsors of an initiative to gather signatures from at least 2 percent of the voters in each of the state’s 35 state-senate districts to make the ballot. And once qualified to be on the ballot, new constitutional provisions would need to receive 55 percent of the vote, rather than the current simple majority, to be approved.

Other Colorado laws are already strangling the initiative process. In 2009, the legislature passed a measure inviting opponents of an initiative to go after its sponsors personally: It gave every Coloradan the right to file a legal challenge for fraud against a petition. And any petition sponsor can be held personally liable for wrongdoing committed by others carrying the same petition.

The initiative process serves as a popular check on out-of-touch legislators.

It’s fashionable these days for elites to disparage popular democracy. But in reality, the initiative process serves as a popular check on out-of-touch legislators and reminds everyone that it’s the voters who should be in charge of the politicians, not the other way around.

Representative government will remain the enduring feature of American democracy, but the initiative process is a valuable safety valve. So long as elected officials gerrymander their districts and otherwise make it nearly impossible for voters to oust them, direct lawmaking will be popular. That’s why attempts to arbitrarily curb the initiative process, or to intimidate people from exercising their right to participate, must be resisted. It’s a civil-liberties issue that should unite people of good will on both the right and left.

That is precisely the coalition that came together in Illinois to end the legislative monopoly on the mapping of districts. Even Bill Daley, the son of the late mayor who built the Daley machine in Chicago, backed the Independent Map amendment. But the Michael Madigan–led political machine in Illinois didn’t leave anything to chance.

It’s little wonder that the state is losing residents: The Census Bureau reports that only West Virginia is losing more people than Illinois. But while Illinois is bleeding people and losing the revenue these residents produced in taxes, the Madigan Machine marches on. It’s already preparing new maps to protect its incumbents even as many of their districts hollow out from population flight. The state continues its slide into insolvency, but the machine remains powerful and well-fueled no matter what.

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