SPRINGFIELD -- Illinois voters will get a chance to be heard before it comes time to redraw Illinois’ congressional and legislative districts next year, and minority groups may get extra protection under a bill pending in the General Assembly.

SPRINGFIELD -- Illinois voters will get a chance to be heard before it comes time to redraw Illinois’ congressional and legislative districts next year, and minority groups may get extra protection under a bill pending in the General Assembly.

Last week, the Illinois Senate approved Senate Bill 3976, the Illinois Voting Rights Act of 2011 and the Redistricting Transparency and Public Participation Act. The measure now goes to the House, which has until Jan. 11 to approve it; if not, the bill dies at the end of the current legislative session.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, said it is important to have more hearings because of the public’s interest in the subject last spring as Democrats and Republicans argued about the best way to reform redistricting.

“We got some meaningful input, not only from experts from all over the country but … everyday individuals,” Raoul said. “We need to get the public’s confidence back.”

If the bill passes, it will mark the first time the legislature has changed the map-drawing process since the 1970 Illinois Constitution was adopted.

Once the 2010 Census is complete, the legislature will begin redrawing legislative district boundaries to reflect the new population numbers. Raoul’s bill requires House and Senate redistricting committees to hold four public hearings throughout Illinois.

The bill also requires the legislature to draw maps that protect minority groups in districts in which they may not have a big enough share of the population to elect a lawmaker, but are still numerous enough to influence the outcome.

The language is aimed to avoid situations similar to what occurred in Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood after the 2000 Census. The neighborhood was carved up into different districts, limiting the influence Asian-Americans had over the election and their ability to get their concerns addressed. A similar situation could occur to the significant Hispanic population in Beardstown if legislators decided to split them up.

But lawmakers must first consider other factors spelled out in the Constitution and federal law. Districts must:

-- Be substantially equal in population

-- Be compact

-- Be contiguous

-- Protect racial minorities who have the majority of the population in an area and draw districts in which they are able to elect a member of their own race.

“Nothing is guaranteed,” Raoul said. “There are other mandates that are superior to what we passed out yesterday.”

The bill passed 53-4, with all of the “no” votes coming from Republicans. But the GOP believes the bill stopped far short of real redistricting reform.

Democrats rejected seven Republican amendments, which would have required map-drawers not to take the incumbent’s addresses or the party voting history of voters into account.

Republicans called for more hearings, including some after a preliminary map is drawn. Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon, the GOP point person on redistricting, noted that Democratic-proposed legislation this past spring would have required twice as many public hearings.

“It fell far short of its potential,” said Righter.

Reform groups who sought to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot last spring to completely overhaul the process agreed.

CHANGE Illinois, a coalition of business leaders, associations and reform groups, including the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, praised the provisions concerning minorities, but said the bill’s bid for more transparency is weak.

“Under this proposal, the Illinois public again would be shut out of conversations about the new map that will stand for 10 years,” the group said in a statement.

Chris Wetterich can be reached at (217) 788-1523.