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Illinois Democrats Guard District-Drawing Privileges

Rici Hoffarth/St. Louis Public Radio

It's a sentiment shared by Democratic politicians and liberal pundits: disgust over how Republicans drew up favorable (for them) legislative districts after the 2010 Census.

Redistricting is blamed for the relative lack of legislative production in Congress and the rise of stringent partisanship, and has prompted Democrats to fight back in several states. Even former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is getting in on the issue, leading the National Democratic Redistricting Committee to crusade against gerrymandering.

But one place that isn’t a battleground is Illinois, where Democrats could be seen as "the bad guy." They drew legislative boundaries in 2011 that put the GOP at a disadvantage. And that has some wondering whether Democrats’ broader push for “fair” maps is really about politics more than principle.

“What they really want to do is get better maps in the seats than they had,” according to Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Others contend that alternatives to having lawmakers draw their own districts — such as an independent commission — don’t necessarily produce less political outcomes.

“I don’t think just setting something up and calling it a commission is the answer to all of the problems,” said Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “Depending on how you structure it, it can help accomplish different things. Not all commissions are the same and they’re designed for different purposes.”


Lay of the Land In Illinois

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who’s up for re-election in 2018, literally laughed out loud when asked whether he was surprised that Holder’s group hasn’t targeted Illinois. “I have some theories on that," Rauner said, "but you can comment better than me.”

The most logical theory is that Democrats benefit from the Illinois process. State lawmakers draw congressional and state legislative districts, and Democrats control the General Assembly; so they drew maps that put Republicans at a big disadvantage. (Republicans did make some gains in southern Illinois, like U.S. Rep. Mike Bost in the 12th Congressional District.)

Rauner believes the status quo is ruining his state’s politics (as partially evidenced by the nearly two-year budget standoff between him and Democratic leaders).

“We have our partisan-drawn maps so that there’s no competition — and the politicians don’t have to earn votes,” Rauner said. “Two-thirds of the races for the General Assembly last November, there was no opponent. That’s not democracy; that’s a rigged system. And we should have redistricting reform in Illinois and across America.”

Federal judges in Texas last week found the state's Republican-drawn legislative maps were gerrymandered to weaken minorities' electoral power by "wasting Latino votes." The same court in March said there was evidence the state's redistricting efforts violated the federal Voting Rights Act.

Rauner has supported creating a complex commission with members of both political parties to draw legislative districts, but the Illinois Supreme Court rejected an initiative petition last year to put that commission up to a statewide vote.

House Speaker Michael Madigan has defended the current redistricting process, which he says provides the state’s black and Latino populations robust legislative representation. In 2015, he said states with redistricting commissions failed to uphold that principle.

"It's a very clear case of discrimination against minorities," Madigan said. "It's clearly set out in the opinion of a court in Arizona, and it was the product coming out of a commission."

Common Concerns About Commissions

It isn’t just elected officials harboring skepticism of redistricting commissions.

Credit Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri's House districts are drawn by a bipartisan commission. But when that commission deadlocked in 2011, judges drew legislative boundaries.

Missouri used a commission, in which Poplar Bluff Democratic activist Nate Kennedy played a part in 2011, to redo state House districts. He said the group, split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, faced lots of pressure from Missouri’s party officials.

“We deadlocked, and it went to a panel of judges,” Kennedy said. “And it was basically drawn in a smoky back room.”

The commission proposed for Illinois would have been different: A three-person panel appointed by the state auditor general would have picked seven members, while the other four would have been representatives of Democrats and Republicans in the legislature.

Kennedy, though, thinks the preferable option is using an algorithm, not people, to draw maps. He said there’s enough data and decent technology to create competitive districts and make sure that districts with large populations of racial minorities aren’t diluted.

“With an equation out there, it’s transparent. You know exactly what kinds of inputs they have for it and exactly what kind of map it’s designed to turn out,” Kennedy said.

No Easy Feat

Changing the Illinois redistricting process would require a constitutional amendment. That could be accomplished through a statewide initiative petition, but it is extremely difficult to get a proposal to a statewide vote.

Another way to do it is to have legislators to put constitutional changes up for a vote, but there’s little taste for that, considering it puts the lawmakers' seats at stake, Levitt said.

“... (E)very single state legislator can easily calculate how the potential change affects them personally in the next couple of elections,” he said. “By 2030, the vast majority of state legislators today are utterly convinced they’re going to be governor or senator or president.”

One former Illinois state legislator who did become president doesn’t believe any state should be let off the hook when it comes to redistricting. During a speech to the Illinois General Assembly last year, then-President Barack Obama said neither Republicans nor Democrats had clean hands.

“This is something we have the power to fix,” Obama said. “And once the next census rolls around and we have the most up to date picture of America’s population, we should change the way districts are drawn.”

That next census won’t start until 2020. But next year’s gubernatorial election could affect the Illinois redistricting map. If Rauner is re-elected, his potential veto could make legislative districts more favorable to the GOP — even if the process to draw those boundaries doesn’t change.

  • The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Since entering the world of professional journalism in 2006, Jason Rosenbaum dove head first into the world of politics, policy and even rock and roll music. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Rosenbaum spent more than four years in the Missouri State Capitol writing for the Columbia Daily Tribune, Missouri Lawyers Media and the St. Louis Beacon. Since moving to St. Louis in 2010, Rosenbaum's work appeared in Missouri Lawyers Media, the St. Louis Business Journal and the Riverfront Times' music section. He also served on staff at the St. Louis Beacon as a politics reporter. Rosenbaum lives in Richmond Heights with with his wife Lauren and their two sons.