Thanks to a recent decision by the Illinois Supreme Court, your November election ballot will be one item shorter than it might have been. By a slim 4-3 margin, the court blocked voters from considering a ballot initiative redesigning the way Illinois draws the districts from which we elect members of the General Assembly.
Currently, the General Assembly itself controls the process, known as redistricting, which happens every ten years based on data from the federal census. Not surprisingly, that process pretty routinely declines into a partisan food fight. Incumbents of both political parties fight for “safe” districts with few voters of the other party; as a result, about two-thirds of candidates this fall will run without opposition from the other major party. In addition, the party that controls the General Assembly—in Illinois that’s the Democrats—uses the redistricting process to maintain and extend its control, over the impassioned opposition of the minority party. The initiative at issue in the recent case would have put redistricting in the hands of an independent commission with membership carefully balanced among independents and members of both parties.
At least arguably, redistricting is exactly the kind of problem the state Constitution’s drafters had in mind when they authorized ballot initiatives to amend the article of the Constitution that covers the legislature. On other subjects, the drafters said, it would be enough that the Constitution could be amended by a new constitutional convention or by the General Assembly. But on matters concerning the General Assembly itself, the drafters recognized that legislators’ self-interest might prevent salutary amendments. And so, the Constitution empowers the people of Illinois to bypass the General Assembly and amend the Constitution by initiative, but only with respect to “structural and procedural subjects” in the key article that governs the General Assembly.
So why did the state’s Supreme Court nix the ballot initiative in this case? Because the initiative assigned duties to the state’s Auditor General, such as collecting and reviewing applications to serve on the independent redistricting commission. You see, the Auditor General’s current duties—auditing the state’s finances and such—are laid out in a different article of the Constitution. So, the court said, assigning additional duties to the Auditor General meant the initiative went beyond the allowable realm of “structural and procedural subjects” in the article governing the General Assembly.
It’s easy to see that some initiatives might transgress those limits. Imagine an initiative saying the General Assembly could not appropriate any funds for any purpose unless the vote in both houses was unanimous. Such a proposal would certainly involve a procedural subject within the legislative article, but it would also radically alter the entire constitutional framework for how public money gets spent.
Decide for yourself whether you think assigning duties to the Auditor General crosses the line. The four Democrats on the Supreme Court said it did, and the three Republicans said it didn’t. That party-line vote, and the unfortunate impression that the court majority doesn’t trust voters to decide on the initiative for themselves, won’t do anything to improve Illinois citizens’ already low opinion of state government. It remains to be seen whether the promoters of this ballot initiative will be able to come up with a new version for some future election that will survive the court’s constricted view of what’s permissible.