Michael Madigan

House Speaker Michael Madigan in Springfield in April. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune / April 17, 2014)

An unusual move by Illinois election officials has injected new controversy into a fight over who wields the crucial power of drawing Illinois' political maps, with supporters of a proposed constitutional amendment complaining that insiders are undermining their efforts.

The political intrigue was heightened when the state elections board abruptly decided to overrule its own hearing officer and shorten a key deadline for those seeking to prove the proposal has enough valid signatures to be placed on the statewide ballot in November.

The hearing officer will listen to arguments Friday on the fate of the measure, which would strip Illinois' most powerful politicians of their authority to draw district maps that help determine who wins elections. Many of them oppose it, most notably House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Supporters say they suspect that had something to do with the board's recent ruling that effectively gave the group less time to build its case.

"It smells of politics," said Michael Kolenc, campaign manager for the bipartisan group Yes for Independent Maps.

In an interview with the Tribune, the chairman of the Illinois State Board of Elections said the board's May 30 decision was an attempt to respond to growing pressure and take heat off the hearing officer by moving the case more quickly toward an inevitable court battle.

"It was becoming a big issue, mostly because of who is for it and who is against it," said the board chairman, former Bloomington Mayor Jesse Smart. "It was growing faster than anyone could imagine, and all of the accusations."

Cries of political favoritism had already been raised last month after election board staff issued a preliminary ruling that many of the signatures were invalid. The board's hearing officer in the case, Northbrook attorney Barbara Goodman, set a June 13 hearing date on the matter and granted supporters' request to have until then to gather evidence that could "rehabilitate" the signatures.

But at a quickly arranged special meeting May 30, board members decided the group already had received enough time under state law and ordered it to submit its evidence a week earlier, June 6.

"We shouldn't abdicate it to a hearing officer," Smart told the Tribune. "We ought to be men enough to take it.

"I didn't want to leave her hanging out there."

The board, however, did not move up the hearing date — just Yes for Independent Maps' deadline.

"That evidence is sitting in a taped box right now, and we're not going to have a hearing until Friday," said Kolenc, the group's leader. "It really raises questions."

Asked to explain how the board's actions sped up the process when it didn't change the timeline for making a decision, Smart told the newspaper, "I don't really know how to answer that."

Goodman is expected to rule sometime after Friday's hearing, and that decision may be appealed to the full elections board.

Smart acknowledged it was the first time in his decade-plus tenure on the board that the members met to overrule a hearing officer on a scheduling matter.

Smart, a Republican, said he has been flooded with criticism even from friends who suggest he is somehow trying to help Madigan, the Chicago Democratic powerhouse who has controlled the mapmaking process for years.

"There was nothing sinister about doing that," Smart said of the board's decision. "It wasn't somebody's sinister plan."

Adding to the political intrigue: The board was urged to act by Madigan ally and state Democratic Party lawyer Michael Kasper, who is representing opponents of the measure. And those opponents have ties to the head of another election agency — Langdon Neal, the chairman of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

Supporters of the amendment effort, which is funded by both Republicans and Democrats, say they want to wrest control of the mapmaking process for seats in the state Senate and House from the traditional power brokers — legislative leaders and the governor — and give it instead to an independent panel. They say that would end the winner-takes-all approach that typically protects the dominant political party and incumbent lawmakers.