The dance of democracy continues in 2021 with the once-a-decade ritual of drawing new state legislative and congressional district lines in Illinois and across the nation. In two-thirds of the states, including Illinois, the legislators themselves draw the lines. This means the party in power draws maps that favor incumbents and enhances its partisan control.
This is done rather simply by “cracking” (breaking apart) pockets of opposition party strength or, conversely, by “packing” (concentrating) a party’s voters so as to limit the numbers of districts the opposition can win.
A couple of election cycles ago, a friend of mine tallied the total number of votes across Illinois for Democratic and Republican House candidates, respectively. He found that Democrats received 50 percent of the total vote, yet won 60 percent of the legislative seats. (That is what is called “gerrymandering,” in honor of Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, who in the early Republic drew a district, favorable to his allies, that looked like a mythical, contorted salamander.)
But this year can be different, as I explain below.
In 2001 and 2011, Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan controlled the process and drew maps that were laughingly unconstitutional. The Illinois Constitution clearly states that districts shall be compact and equal in population. However, the 2011 map for the Illinois Legislature includes districts that are stringy, arthritic fingers that reach from central city Chicago out into nearby suburbs, to pick up enough population to provide districts for incumbent Democratic members.
As soon as the new census figures are tallied and reported to the states, redistricting will begin in earnest. In normal times, Mike Madigan would draw the maps; they would be contested in the courts by opposition Republicans who would scream foul, and the courts would say, tsk, tsk,
This past election, a group of us campaigned successfully to oust Democratic Illinois Supreme Court Justice Tom Kilbride, whom we believed had paid his union dues faithfully to his benefactor Mike Madigan, via highly partisan court opinions.
Immediately upon Kilbride’s ouster, the other justices appointed a temporary appointment until 2022. They elevated the man Kilbride had been personally appointing to the state appellate court for 16 years. So, the court remains 4-3 in the hands of the Dems, and ready once again to support a gerrymandered map.
As I say, however, this year is different. First, Madigan and his fellow Dems are under an electron microscope, because the speaker is implicated in a brazen corruption scheme. Even if he loses his speakership contest, the Dems who follow in his footsteps will be judged on whether they are just like Mike, or can be better.
Second, Gov. JB Pritzker has proclaimed repeatedly that he will support only a “transparent” map-drawing process that is thought to be fair.
So, what to do? Borrowing from an old adage about candidates, you can’t beat a bad map with no map. Thus, I propose that good government groups like Change Illinois, the Better Government Association and the League of Women Voters get together to draw alternative maps that are based on the criteria used in neighboring Iowa, which is considered to have the gold standard in mapping. The legislature in Iowa turns the process over to its legislative research agency, which is prohibited from using factors of incumbency or political party in drawing new district lines.
Illinois is more diverse than Iowa, and courts and Congress have decreed that minorities must have a fair shot at electing their own. Further, in 2011 the Illinois Legislature added “communities of interest” to the criteria here, to protect Chinatown in Chicago from being fractured in such a way that the community could not elect one of its own.
Fortunately, there is widely available, off-the-shelf technology that allows citizen groups to draw the maps. They could direct a computer to maximize, as much as possible, population equality, compactness, minority opportunities, communities of interest — and to avoid like the plague incumbency and partisan considerations.
The computer whirs for a while and then spits out one or more maps based on those criteria. I am sure independent-minded lawmakers can be found to introduce these maps into the legislature for consideration, along with the in-house gerrymandered version.
But, appreciate that few inside either party will like these nonpolitical maps drawn by outsiders, (probably using the same software as the gerrymanderers). And these maps won’t alone transform the legislature from Dem to GOP majority control. The state is too Blue for that.
Independent, nonpartisan maps will, however, be drawn to the benefit of the voters, rather than the elected officials. And such maps would probably result in more competition, that is, more choices for the voters.
All of the above won’t happen without relentless public pressure on lawmakers and courts to support nonpartisan maps. I never said democracy was easy.