Austin Berg opinion column: The time is ripe for Illinois to end gerrymandering

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that federal judges will not come to the rescue when it comes to partisan mapmaking.

The two gerrymandering cases before the court, including one map drawn by Maryland Democrats and one by the North Carolina GOP, presented “political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” according to Chief Justice John Roberts.

In other words, state lawmakers will need to step up to fix the problem.

With support for fair maps in the Illinois General Assembly, a hungry electorate and a national conversation on gerrymandering, is the Land of Lincoln finally ready to change its own backwards mapmaking?

That is the question sitting before Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Dovetailing with the first Democratic presidential debates was a June poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News that explored what kinds of electoral policy ideas are favored among Democratic Party voters nationwide. Among the most popular: ending gerrymandering. More than three-quarters of Democrats (77%) said this would improve democracy.

Pritzker has often counted himself among those Democrats.

“We should amend the constitution to create an independent commission to draw legislative maps, and I have supported this effort for years,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 2018. According to the nonprofit CHANGE Illinois, Pritzker donated $50,000 to a fair maps initiative in 2014.

But while the governor spent enormous personal and political capital pushing other campaign pledges through the Illinois General Assembly this year, such as a progressive income tax constitutional amendment, marijuana legalization and a major infrastructure plan with a large gas tax hike, he was mum on maps.

There’s still plenty of time to get a fair maps constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot before November 2020. And it is sorely needed.

In the 2018 election, nearly half the races for the Illinois House of Representatives were uncontested. The Illinois Senate was even less competitive, with 20 of the 39 senators up for election facing no opponent. This is what happens when politicians pick their voters.

In 2011, Illinois Democrats drew lines that forced incumbent Republicans into the same district – along with plenty of other tortured boundaries in Democrats’ favor. Illinois Republicans did the same thing to Democrats in 1991.

That’s why it’s so encouraging that a fair maps amendment is seeing huge bipartisan support in Springfield this year.

Senate Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 4 would create an independent 16-member commission to draw legislative maps in Illinois. It has attracted 37 Democratic and Republican senators as sponsors. That’s more than the supermajority vote needed to pass the amendment out of the Senate.

But it has not moved out of the Senate. And Pritzker has not endorsed it.

Why?

Ask House Speaker Mike Madigan, who also leads the Democratic Party of Illinois.

Madigan didn’t become the longest-serving legislative leader in U.S. history by letting someone else decide what’s “fair.”

Madigan first ascended to the speakership in 1983 on the back of a highly partisan map he helped draw. The power of the mapmaking pen has been key to maintaining his decadeslong dominance in Springfield. While Republicans had the luck of the draw following the 1990 census, Madigan drew the map following the 1980, 2000 and 2010 censuses.

Following the 2020 census, a new map will come due under Pritzker’s watch.

The speaker wants to maintain his power. But a national wave on this issue, strong support among rank-and-file lawmakers, and public pressure from Pritzker and Senate President John Cullerton could make constitutional reform a reality.

A March poll from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University showed 67% of Illinoisans supported a constitutional amendment to allow an independent commission draw legislative maps, rather than state lawmakers. Republicans (63% support), Independents (70%) and Democrats (72%) were all on board.

More than a dozen states have independent redistricting commissions draw their legislative maps.

Illinoisans want the same. And Pritzker should speak for them.

Austin Berg is a Chicago-based writer with the Illinois Policy Institute who wrote this column for The Center Square. Austin can be reached at aberg@illinoispolicy.org.

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