A ballot initiative to change the way legislative maps are drawn in Illinois has taken a significant step forward.
The Illinois State Board of Elections certified the results of signature sampling conducted late last month for the proposed Independent Map Amendment.
After randomly sampling 5 percent of the more than 563,000 submitted signatures, election officials determined that the Independent Maps group secured far more than the minimum requirement of 290,216 valid signatures to get the issue on the November ballot.
Members of Independent Maps, a coalition of civic, non-profit and business leaders, cheered the news.
"Our constitution gives people the power to address flaws in the legislature that the politicians refuse to fix themselves," Independent Maps campaign manager Dave Mellet said in a statement. "The people have spoken, and they are ready to vote on a fair and transparent system for drawing political maps in Illinois."
But getting the proposed initiative on the ballot is not a done deal just yet.
A pending lawsuit is challenging the constitutionality of the Independent Map Amendment in an effort to keep it off the November ballot. Election officials are waiting for a decision in the case before approving the ballot measure.
Under the proposed Independent Maps Amendment, a non-partisan, 11-member independent commission would draw the state's legislative district maps.
The Illinois auditor general would randomly select a three-member panel "from a pool of registered voters who have a 'demonstrated understanding of and adherence to standards of ethical conduct,'" according to Independent Maps. That panel would then randomly select seven individuals from a pool of 100 potential commissioners. Illinois' House speaker, Senate president and the legislature's two minority leaders would pick the remaining four commissioners from the applicant pool.
The 11-member commission would craft a redistricting plan that would need seven votes for approval. The seven affirmative votes would have to come from at least two Democrats, two Republicans and three independents.
"The commission meetings and records would be open to the public, and the commission would be required to hold public hearings throughout the state," reads an Independent Maps news release. "The commission drawn maps would be required to protect the voting rights of racial and ethnic minorities, and the maps would be drawn without regard to incumbency or partisanship."
Currently, the Illinois General Assembly drafts the state's legislative boundaries every 10 years following the release of the decennial Census. Members of both parties are supposed to work together to create an equitable map, which then goes to the governor for final approval.
If lawmakers fail to reach a consensus, the remapping responsibilities move to an eight-member backup commission selected by legislative leaders.
Critics of the current redistricting process say it works to protect incumbents and can result in a lack of political competition.
The lawsuit against the Independent Map Amendment, filed in Cook County by the People's Map group, argues that the effort is unconstitutional and places new roles on the Illinois Supreme Court and auditor general, among other concerns.
Officials with the People's Map have also claimed that the proposed redistricting reforms could adversely affect minority participation and representation.
"As drafted, there is no way to ensure minority representation on the proposed commission and no way to ensure that communities of color would be protected," People's Map Chairman John Hooker said back in February. "The minority community would lose the strong voice it currently has to ensure protection in Illinois' remapping process. That would result in the loss of representation in the General Assembly for minorities, middle-class families and struggling families that are the fabric of our neighborhoods and our state."
Independent Maps has pushed back on the minority representation issue, noting that the amendment language states that the "redistricting plan shall not dilute or diminish the ability of a racial or language minority community to elect the candidates of its choice, including when voting in concert with other persons."
Dennis FitzSimons, Independent Maps' chair, claims that "entrenched political interests looking to deny citizens the chance to change the system" brought the lawsuit against the amendment.
The People's Map is working with an elections attorney who has connections to House Speaker Michael Madigan, the Illinois Democratic Party chairman.
The attorney successfully blocked a similar map amendment attempt in 2014. Madigan's spokesman has previously said the House speaker was not involved in the People's Map lawsuit.
But that's not stopping the Illinois Republican Party from claiming Monday that Madigan "continues to sponsor" the lawsuit and is "the only thing standing in the way of letting the people vote for fair legislative map."
In response to the comments, Madigan's spokesman Steve Brown called the Republicans "desperate" and reiterated that Madigan is not a party in the lawsuit.
Messages seeking comment for this story were left with the People's Map.
Back in 2014, a previous redistricting reform initiative, called Yes for Independent Maps, failed to get on the ballot. A judge took issue with certain provisions in the proposal, including language preventing a mapmaking commissioner from serving as a lawmaker or in several other offices for a decade after being on the panel. The campaign also failed to garner enough valid signatures.
In addition to collecting many more signatures, members of Independent Maps say the coalition has expanded since the last remapping campaign and is better funded. Lessons from the 2014 redistricting reform campaign were also used to create the newest proposal "to make it more likely the amendment will withstand legal challenges" from opponents, according to the group.
Oral arguments in the lawsuit filed by the People's Map are slated for June 30. The Illinois State Board of Elections has an August 26 statutory deadline to certify the November ballot.