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President Obama: "In America, politicians should not pick their voters; voters should pick their politicians."

In Springfield on Feb. 10 to mark the nine-year anniversary of announcing his candidacy, President Barack Obama addressed the Illinois General Assembly. His speech was both a walk down Memory Lane and a look to the future – his vision of what he believes is necessary “to build a better politics.”

He singled out redistricting reform as one of the keys to improving political discourse. Although he was talking about reform of congressional redistricting, his arguments against partisan gerrymandering also apply to redistricting of the Illinois House and Senate.

Using the White House transcription of President Obama’s remarks, we’ve excerpted the redistricting reform section of his speech. And in (COMMENT) paragraphs, we added our own annotations about redistricting of state legislative districts in Illinois.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: The second step towards a better politics is rethinking the way that we draw our congressional districts. (Applause.) Now, let me point this out -- I want to point this out, because this is another case of cherry-picking here. (Laughter.) This tends to be popular in states where Democrats have been drawing the lines among Republicans, and less popular among Republicans where they control drawing the lines. (Applause.) So let’s be very clear here -- nobody has got clean hands on this thing. Nobody has got clean hands on this thing.

(COMMENT: The President’s point is equally true of legislative redistricting. No matter which party is in power, the leadership of the party in control of drawing maps wants to keep that power, and the minority backs reform. Independent Map Amendment has support from both parties and independents. Several prominent Democrats are on our Board – including former Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon and William Daley, a former Chief of Staff to President Obama. See list of supporters HERE.)

PRESIDENT OBAMA: The fact is, today technology allows parties in power to precision-draw constituencies so that the opposition’s supporters are packed into as few districts as possible. That’s why our districts are shaped like earmuffs or spaghetti. (Laughter.) It’s also how one party can get more seats even when it gets fewer votes.

(COMMENT: True in Illinois’ legislative elections, too. Here’s an excerpt from the recent research report, “Partisan Advantage and Competitiveness in Illinois Redistricting” by Cynthia Canary and Kent Redfield: “In 2012, Democratic candidates in the House won 52 percent of the total vote and 60 percent of the seats, and Democratic candidates in the Senate won 54 percent of the vote and 68 percent of the seats. In a 2014 midterm election favoring Republicans, the partisan bias in the 2011 maps still delivered for Democratic candidates. While the margin in total votes cast for Democrats in legislative elections shrank to a near-tie statewide, Democrats still won 71 House seats, a 60 percent majority. The Democrats also won 11 of the 19 Senate seats that were up in 2014 while receiving less than a majority of the total votes cast in those 19 districts.” Full report on the CHANGE Illinois website HERE.)

PRESIDENT OBAMA: And while this gerrymandering may insulate some incumbents from a serious challenge from the other party, it also means that the main thing those incumbents are worried about are challengers from the most extreme voices in their own party. That’s what’s happened in Congress. You wonder why Congress doesn’t work? The House of Representatives there, there may be a handful -- less than 10 percent -- of districts that are even competitive at this point. So if you’re a Republican, all you’re worried about is what somebody to your right is saying about you, because you know you’re not going to lose a general election. Same is true for a lot of Democrats. So our debates move away from the middle, where most Americans are, towards the far ends of the spectrum. And that polarizes us further.

(COMMENT: True for lack of competition in state legislative districts, too. Here’s the data from that Canary-Redfield research paper: “The degree of competition in Illinois legislative elections is low and declining. When a winning candidate’s vote total is 55 percent or less, the district is considered “competitive.” On average over the past four decades, 88 percent of voters [104 of 118 House races, 52 of 59 Senate races] had no choice at all on the ballot or a choice between a sure winner and a sure loser.”)

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Now, this is something we have the power to fix. And once the next census rolls around and we have the most up-to-date picture of America’s population, we should change the way our districts are drawn. In America, politicians should not pick their voters; voters should pick their politicians. (Applause.)

(COMMENT: Voters do have the power to fix legislative redistricting in Illinois. Most amendments to the Illinois Constitution have to start with legislation in the General Assembly. But the Illinois Constitution does allow voters to offer amendments that would change structural and procedural subjects in the legislative article of the constitution. That’s how state legislative redistricting reform can be accomplished in Illinois. We need to submit a minimum of 290,216 valid signatures on petitions early in May. We have about 500,000 signatures now and will gather 600,000 by May of 2016. If a majority of the people voting in the November election or 60 percent of those voting on the amendment question approve, the new independent commission will use 2020 Census data to draw new district maps in 2021.)

PRESIDENT OBAMA: And this needs to be done across the nation, not just in a select few states. It should be done everywhere. (Applause.)

(COMMENT: Again, President Obama was talking about reform of congressional redistricting. When some states go to non-partisan congressional maps but others remain partisan, there can be political ramifications about the balance of power in Congress. That argument for a national reform in one fell swoop does not apply to state legislative map reforms. All districts in a state legislative chamber – like the Illinois House and Illinois Senate – would be subject to maps drawn by a non-partisan, independent commission. It’s the equivalent of reforming all congressional redistricting at once. In an interview with The Chicago Tribune following his speech in Springfield, President Obama cited California as an example of a state with an independent commission that “works perfectly well.” The redistricting system in California most closely resembles the system that would be created in Illinois under the Independent Map Amendment. The California system was created as a state legislative reform through a citizen-passed referendum in 2008.)

Keywords: President Barack Obama

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