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Olson: Fair maps, not term limits are the answer

Illinois doesn’t need term limits for its elected officials. It needs fair maps for electing them.

Both of those proposals could appear on the ballot in the fall, unless state House Speaker Michael Madigan’s operatives succeed in keeping them off through a legal challenge.

Madigan – or at least, the system that created him – is the target for both of those proposals. He’s been in the state House more than 40 years, and been speaker for almost 30 of those.

Many people are sick of the undue influence he wields over the entire state while being accountable to only a fraction of its voters, in the 22nd District on the southwest side of Chicago. They’re right – it’s not fair.

But imposing term limits on all state legislators is cutting off your nose to spite your face. Creating a system for drawing fair representative districts would give the state the facelift it really needs.

The change to the legislative map-drawing process, led by a nonpartisan group called “Yes for Fair Maps” would create an independent commission to draw a new political map for the legislature every decade. The idea is to take partisan political considerations out of the process. It would be a huge step forward for Illinois.

Look at the composition of our state government. It’s entirely controlled by Democrats, who hold supermajorities in the House and Senate and control the governor’s office – for now, anyway.

Democrats had a tight hold on power before they redrew state and federal legislative districts in 2010. Afterward, they gained even more power. In 2012 elections, the Dems added seven seats in the House and five in the state Senate. The state’s Congressional delegation became more Democratic, too, increasing from 8 of 19 seats to 11 of 18.

The point isn’t necessarily that Democrats are bad, so much as that one party is manipulating the system to have complete control and minimize voters’ ability to influence the system.

Illinoisans are angry at state government and have less trust in state officials than in any other state in the nation, polling data from Gallup shows. Yet there seems to be little change in Springfield.

Why? Because the game is rigged.

Let’s put Democrats aside for a moment and look at the case of state Rep. Bob Pritchard, a Republican who represents most of DeKalb County in the 70th District.

Pritchard was chosen to fill the unexpired term of David Wirsing, who died in November 2003. Pritchard took office Dec. 1, 2003.

He grew up on his family’s farm near Maple Park. He’s worked at universities, he’s been a newsman, and at the time he was chosen to serve in the House, he was executive director of Illinois Agricultural Leadership Foundation. 

He stepped out of a committee meeting in Springfield about community college budget requests to speak with me Thursday. 

“The feedback that I’m getting is I’m doing a fair job of representing the total issues that our district can deal with, and that’s my goal,” Pritchard said.“The better I do that, I think the less people feel that they need a change.”

Pritchard said it took about eight years for him to truly become comfortable with how things worked in Springfield. In other words, just as he would have been forced to leave office under the current term limits proposal.

“Certainly, the longer you’re here the more comfortable you are with the issues and the process and how to influence the process,” Pritchard said. “That’s been my major concern about the movement of term limits, is what is the length of that term limit that they’re shooting for.”

Pritchard said if there were to be term limits, 12 years might make more sense.

If Springfield becomes a revolving door where neophytes replace experienced people every eight years, it’s unelected staffers and “consultants” who will become more powerful. In other words, that could be Madigan’s next line of work – he could have power without answering to any voters.

Since 2004, Pritchard has appeared on the ballot in five general elections and six primaries.

He hasn’t faced a primary challenge since 2004. No Democrat has challenged him since Chuck Sauer tried in 2006. His last opponent of any kind was James Dusing of the Green Party in 2008, who Pritchard beat by a 3-to-1 margin. He was unopposed the entire way in 2010 and 2012, and no opponent has materialized so far this year.

Pritchard is pretty visible and accessible, and has roots here. It could be that voters here think he knows their concerns and values and like the way he represents them.

It could also be that people look at the district and conclude that there’s no hope for a Democrat or other third-party challenger.

If voters like Pritchard representing them, he shouldn’t be disqualified. But if the district is drawn in a way that discourages competition, that should change.

Illinois is full of “safe” representative districts, drawn to give one party or another an edge. When politicians are in a safe district and stay in the good graces of party leaders by voting as they’re told, they can usually rest assured they’ll be able to outspend any primary challengers and can stay in office as long as they like.

“It is the epitome of legislators choosing the citizens, rather than the other way around,” Pritchard said. “The maps are drawn to marginalize whatever group the party in power wants to marginalize.”

At the state level, the maps help Democrats retain their stranglehold on power.

At the federal level, the state is a tangle of districts covering broad swaths of territory with little regard for population centers, including DeKalb and Sycamore.

The 16th Congressional District, which includes DeKalb, stretches from the state line (including part of Rockford) to just north of Champaign. Its represented by Republican Adam Kinzinger of Channahon.

Sycamore is at the edge of the 14th Congressional District, which includes suburban areas as far away as the state line in Lake County down to the southwest suburbs. It’s represented by Republican Randy Hultgren of Winfield.

Those districts were drawn that way to encompass as many Republican voters as possible, and also to force two Republican reps to face off in 2012, when Kinzinger defeated Don Manzullo in a primary election.

But we’re not the only ones marginalized under the system. Other towns, such as Bloomington, Peoria, and Crystal Lake are represented by two different people in Congress.

These districts diminish the voices of people with similar concerns, and make it harder for politicians to truly represent their districts.

Here’s a last illustration of how the map-drawing skews the will of the people. Although Democrats dominate state government, when the whole state votes, it’s rarely such a whitewash. Illinois has a senator from each party. The governor’s race in 2010 was a close contest where the Republican challenger won 99 of the state’s 102 counties, and Gov. Pat Quinn won election by less than 1 percent of the 3.7 million votes cast.

And yet when the state is broken up with enough skill, it can render entirely lopsided results.

We need to stop this scam.

If we can create a fair system for drawing legislative boundaries, we won’t need term limits to get rid of crooked politicians. The voters will do it.

• Eric Olson is editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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