Illinois Supreme Court Strikes Down Remap Referendum

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Written by Austin Berg

In a 4-3 ruling, the Illinois Supreme Court erased from November ballots a referendum on legislative mapmaking, and handed a major victory to Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan Aug. 25.

In its ruling, the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the July 20 decision from Cook County Circuit Court Judge Diane Larsen.

This stands as the second time in the last three years that Madigan’s top lawyer, Michael Kasper, has successfully sued to stop mapmaking reform in its tracks.

The referendum in question came after the nonpartisan Independent Maps coalition filed 570,000 signatures with the Illinois State Board of Elections in May. If successful, it would have shrunk the speaker’s influence in legislative map drawing by putting that process in the hands of a broad coalition, rather than the winner-take-all system that has followed the census each decade since 1970.

A career made on maps

It is through that system that Madigan first rose to power.

After the 1980 census, an eight-member panel evenly split between Democrats and Republicans was charged with remapping Illinois’ legislative districts. But the panel failed to come to an agreement. To break the gridlock, a ninth member of the panel was drawn at random.

In an almost mythical fashion, the name was chosen out of a top hat worn by Abraham Lincoln.

The name drawn was that of former Democratic Gov. Sam Shapiro. That made Madigan, then House minority leader, mapmaker-in-chief.

His map was unlike anything the state had ever seen.

While demographic trends in Chicago and surrounding suburbs spelled disaster for his party, Madigan’s first map led to a Democratic rout in the 1982 elections.

He gifted Chicago six more House seats and three more Senate seats than its population dictated. And, after voters ratified a constitutional cutback amendment trimming the ranks of the Illinois House, Madigan’s map ensured 43 of the 59 eliminated seats belonged to the GOP.

“He is a political wizard,” the Chicago Tribune editorial board wrote Dec. 18, 1981.

State lawmakers quickly showed their appreciation by electing him to the speakership in 1983.

“Many of them know they wouldn’t even be in the General Assembly if it weren’t for the heavily Democratic map of legislative districts that Madigan crafted in 1981…,” the Tribune reported in a 1989 retrospective.

Madigan has held that position of power for 31 of the past 33 years.


Madigan’s biggest political accomplishment was not without its detractors, however. A three-member panel of federal judges, for example, was displeased.

They found Madigan’s map, which extended certain city districts into predominantly white areas to save Democrat seats, unconstitutionally diluted black voting strength in Chicago.

That ruling stood as the first time a northern state had found the Democratic Party guilty of intentional discrimination against minorities, according to the Tribune.

A year later, those legislative boundaries in question were still up for grabs, and Madigan was worried. Reportedly at his request, the U.S. District Court removed a requirement for the map to be published, because Madigan didn’t want his name on the court battle.

He was considering a run for governor. And he was scared of being labeled a racist.

“It’s a travesty,” then-state Rep. Carol Mosley-Braun, D-Chicago, told the Tribune in 1983. “Mike did draw the map, and he’s got to live with that. It’s just that simple.”

Madigan has drawn the state’s legislative map twice more since then, after the 2000 and 2010 censuses.

The 2012 elections saw a new district splintering Decatur and Springfield by race, connecting areas of the two cities containing more black voters. It was Madigan’s doing, and it worked. That tinkering let Democrats pick up a Senate seat and a House seat they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Due to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibiting drawing borders “primarily” to create minority districts, House Democrats had to argue in federal court that they drew the district this way for partisan reasons.

As if there were any question.

The power of the map

Much of Madigan’s Statehouse success is predicated on his use of the map.

But the system he’s protected, wherein politicians get to choose their voters, has led to a lack of competitive elections, and an equally distressing lack of confidence in state government.

The current legislative districting system leaves a majority of Illinoisans without a real choice in their elected officials. Less than 40 percent of Illinois’ legislative races in 2016 will be contested.

True mapmaking reform would mean fewer politically “safe” districts, fewer tortured shapes and loads more transparency. All three require getting politicians out of the cartography business.

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