Independent map ballot question could be in trouble

Members of Yes for Independent Maps place pages containing hundreds of thousands of signatures into a long metal binding apparatus. A check by election officials revealed many invalid signatures. (Alex Garcia)

A proposed state constitutional amendment that would ask Illinois voters this fall to create an independent body to draw new legislative boundaries is at risk of not making the ballot following an initial review of petition signatures by state elections officials.

Rupert Borgsmiller, executive director of the State Board of Elections, said Tuesday that the required review of 5 percent of the 507,500 signatures submitted by the Yes for Independent Maps campaign found less than 46 percent of them were valid. Given the number of signatures turned in, the group would need about 60 percent to be valid to earn a ballot spot.

But Michael Kolenc, campaign manager for the independent maps movement, said the group is confident it can restore legitimate names struck from the petitions in numbers great enough to overcome the first of several hurdles to put the question before voters during the Nov. 4 general election.

Kolenc contended the review was conducted hastily and without uniform standards. He also alleged some election workers made unwarranted personal advances to members of his staff who were official “watchers” of the validation process.

“We’re disappointed in the process. We’ve done our homework,” Kolenc said of the petition-gathering process. “Our validation rate is above 60 percent so we feel confident our validation will lead us to the ballot.”

This year marked the first time that the State Board of Elections had conducted the signature validation requirement in-house per a change in the law. In prior years, local county clerks were charged with overseeing the signature checks.

“I’m not saying it’s perfect. I’m not saying it’s imperfect. I am saying it’s fair and obviously the proponents (of the map initiative) don’t necessarily agree with that,” Borgsmiller said.

Borgsmiller said election officials “didn’t speed anybody up or rush to finish” signature reviews. He also said he was not going to discuss allegations that staff engaged in unprofessional conduct toward the verification “watchers” from the independent map group.

Kolenc also contended that some reviews of signatures were conducted at night, away from observers. Borgsmiller said some “administrative holds” were placed on some names, but none were struck as invalid.

The proposed map amendment would create a five-step process leading to the selection of an 11-member commission that would be charged with drawing new legislative district boundaries after the federal census. It is aimed at producing more competitive districts rather than map lines that favor incumbents.

The commission would replace the current winner-take-all method of assigning the drawing to the political party in power or the party that wins a special lottery.

The election board’s initial review concluded that out of 25,375 signatures sampled, 11,568 were valid. With 298,400 valid signatures needed to get on the ballot, 15,225 — or about 60 percent — of valid register voter signatures are needed from the sample verification.

By law, the independent map campaign has until May 30 to try to prove up the validity of names that were deemed invalid. Kolenc said that process began last week and that lawyers for the group may try to seek more time. Kolenc also said the group reserves the right to challenge the signature review process in court.

After the map group attempts to restore names to the valid list, the board can conduct a second, random sample of another 5 percent of signatures if it has questions about whether it statistically has enough to appear on the ballot.

The map proposal is one of two petition initiative-driven efforts to amend the state Constitution this year. A plan backed by Republican governor candidate Bruce Rauner to impose an eight-year limit on service by lawmakers faces its first signature review on Wednesday.

Also Tuesday, groups representing each proposed amendment filed responses to a lawsuit backed by allies of powerful Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan that seeks to prevent the questions from appearing on the ballot.

The Committee for Legislative Reform and Term Limits argued their proposed amendment met previous state Supreme Court rulings to be allowed to before voters. The committee’s response also alleged “the legislature has become unresponsive to the conserves of the people of Illinois and unduly subject to the influence of special interests and narrow partisan concerns.”

In addition to a limit on legislative service, the proposed amendment would increase the size of the 118 member House to 123, reduce the size of the 59-member Senate to 41 and require a two-thirds — rather than three-fifths — majority to override a governor’s veto.

The court challenge to the proposed amendment contends it strung together unrelated issues to try to pass constitutional muster. Supporters said the elements work together but also suggested the court might want to revisit previous rulings which sharply narrowed the scope of what petition-driven amendments could include.

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