Updated: November 19, 2013 6:09AM
When it comes to state legislative races, most of us don’t have much of a choice in the voting booth.
In fact, during last year’s general election, 42 percent of Illinois lawmakers didn’t have an opponent. And another 53 percent faced only nominal opposition, winning their races by a margin greater than 5 percent.
That leaves few competitive legislative races. In 2012, only 10 of 194, a mere 5 percent, actually were closely contested.
So for the great majority of seats in the General Assembly, the winner was a foregone conclusion long before Election Day.
“I think a lot of people don’t run because they don’t think they can win,” said Neil Anderson, of Rock Island, who plans to seek the Republican nomination in the 36th Senate District. “The system we have now favors one party. The public deserves to have a choice in candidates.”
Anderson, who hopes to win the primary election and run against Sen. Mike Jacobs (D-East Moline) in the November 2014 election, said he has been told his race may well be the most competitive Senate race in Illinois. It may be the only competitive Senate race.
That’s not good.
When politicians fear the voters, we have democracy. When voters fear the government, we have something far more sinister.
Today, we have an unprecedented level of arrogance in the Illinois General Assembly.
Instead of having a Legislature beholden to the voters, we have a membership that kowtows to legislative leaders, union bosses and other special interests.
How did we get in this regrettable situation?
The professional political class has found a way to keep most lawmakers from being held accountable at the polls. Instead of voters picking legislators, legislators are picking their voters.
It all begins with how the boundaries of Illinois legislative districts are drawn. Using sophisticated computer programs loaded full of voter history, census data, demographic trends and a whole host of other information, legislative leaders create the map of districts.
“In Illinois, the public is really isn’t a consideration in the redistricting process,” said Mike Lawrence, former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “The two considerations that do go into legislative redistricting, right now, are consolidation of political power, and to a lesser extent, protection of incumbents. Neither serves the public particularly well. That’s why I support a change.”
Instead of drawing districts that have a good mix of Republicans, Democrats and independents, the leaders of the political party in power in each chamber prepare a redistricting map to favor that party.
That’s a special problem when one party controls the House, the Senate and the governor’s office as Democrats currently do in Illinois. The redistricting after the 2010 census disproportionately favors Democrats.
But Republicans aren’t angels either. In the states where they have political dominance, they often do the same thing.
It seems that whoever is in control, the professional politicians want to curtail the ability of voters to be heard.
A coalition called Yes for Independent Maps is pushing to have Illinois voters consider a constitutional amendment next year that would take the power to draw legislative maps away from lawmakers.
Instead, an independent commission would draw the district boundaries. The commission members would be drawn from a pool of experts and selected in a manner similar to how jury members are picked.
Instead of having the Land of Lincoln feature a patchwork of oddly shaped districts designed to boost the electoral prospects of one political party, the commissioners would draw geographically compact districts and divorce themselves from partisan considerations.
It would seem a logical step in the right direction. Whether it is on an athletic field, the business world or at the ballot box, competition makes for a better society.
It’s time that more lawmakers learn to compete in the marketplace of ideas. The only sure winners in such a scenario are the voters.
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist-in-residence at the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonprofit research group that supports the free market and limited government.