On the surface, Friday’s ruling by a Cook County judge that blocked a legislative redistricting referendum from appearing on the Nov. 4 ballot seemed to be a crushing defeat for reformers comprising the Yes for Independent Maps group.
It is true that the months-long campaign to approve a constitutional amendment to take politics out of redistricting, which included collecting hundreds of thousands of petition signatures, will not bear fruit this election cycle.
The campaign had already faced difficulties with the potential lack of sufficient valid signatures.
For the time being, Illinois’ legislative redistricting process won’t reflect the reforms supported by many residents who want to remove the heavy hand of politics from how districts are drawn every 10 years.
The 2011 redistricting map, drawn by Democrats, and its impact on the 2012 election, is a case in point. While Democratic candidates received 53 percent of the total votes cast statewide in representative races, they won 60 percent of the seats in the Illinois House. And while Democrats won 52 percent of the total votes cast statewide in senatorial races, they won 68 percent of the seats in the Illinois Senate.
A closer look at Circuit Judge Mary Mikva’s opinion, however, reveals silver linings in the cloud of disappointment.
In her opinion, Mikva concluded that “redistricting appears to be fair game for amendment” through the Illinois Constitution’s initiative clause.
She also wrote that “structural and procedural subjects” of the constitution’s legislative article “could be the basis of a valid … initiative.”
The judge rejected other arguments by the opponents of redistricting reform. In her opinion, a redistricting reform amendment would not take power away from the General Assembly “to enact substantive laws,” would not interfere with the powers of the governor or attorney general, and would not violate the Free and Equal Clause.
In shooting down the proposed amendment, Mikva ruled that it failed to meet constitutional requirements in several areas because it included changes that were not “structural and procedural,” which is the language in the constitution that governs citizen initiatives.
In particular, Mikva said the amendment would impermissibly restrict members of the redistricting commission from serving in the Legislature for the succeeding 10 years – an effort by the reform group to avoid conflicts of interest when redistricting decisions are made.
The implication is that future proposed amendments tailored to avoid those issues could well pass constitutional muster.
In the same ruling, Mikva declared invalid a term limits constitutional amendment supported by GOP gubernatorial nominee Bruce Rauner because it appears to be impermissible under the constitution.
“In contrast, a differently drafted redistricting initiative could be valid, but, for the reasons stated, the proposed Redistricting Initiative is not,” she wrote.
The Yes for Independent Maps group announced Friday that it would not appeal the ruling.
But Scott Siebel, field director for Yes for Independent Maps, sounded a positive note.
"Instead, we will put the lessons learned in this campaign and from the judge's ruling to good use," he said in a statement.
"This experience will make us better prepared to win the next campaign to give voters an opportunity to have a voice in the redistricting process."
The battle for redistricting reform in 2014 has been lost.
But elections in 2016, 2018 and 2020 remain as opportunities to put forth a revised reform amendment before the 2021 redistricting takes place.
Because of a Cook County judge’s order and opinion, the trail toward winning the war might just have been blazed.