The U.S. Supreme Court is taking up the topic of legislative redistricting, which on the surface might seem interesting only to policy wonks and editorial boards. But hear us out: A decision from the high court could cause waves in Illinois – and after what we’ve seen this session in Springfield, we hope it does.
After all, ours is a state in which gerrymandering is a time-honored partisan tradition, as evidenced by truly bizarre state House and Senate district lines. Many, especially in the Chicago area, resemble abstract artworks, with boundaries turning and twisting to accommodate communities, neighborhoods and blocks.
It looks like a mess, and there’s a good reason for that. The state Legislature crafts the borders, pending gubernatorial approval, which means whatever political party is in control rewrites the map for both General Assembly and Congressional districts. By using data on voter turnout and who won, legislators can simply adjust here and there to benefit their party.
The handiwork is blatantly political — and perfectly OK under current rules.
For Illinois Democrats, and especially longtime House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, the structure helps retain incredible power and majority control in the Legislature. Because fewer Republican residents translate into fewer Republicans running for office, some districts are almost untouchable — making for nearly guaranteed wins and essentially pointless general election contests. The infection is allowed to fester year after year, cycle after cycle.
Of course, this is not unique to Illinois or the Democratic Party. There’s what’s known as the “snake by the lake,” the nickname for Ohio’s Ninth Congressional District from the Michigan state line to Cleveland hugging Lake Erie. In fact, the word “gerrymandering” dates all the way to 1812, referencing an oddly shaped district drawn by the Massachusetts governor at the time, Elbridge Gerry.
Across the country, it has become a politically charged ritual repeating every 10 years as new census data comes out. The controlling political party runs the show.
Have a community that votes reliably for our candidates? Shift the line a few miles to include them.
Got a district with a lot of support with the other party? Divide it into multiple districts and dilute their toehold.
Let’s weigh this district differently so we can guarantee a win.
Swing districts are snipped. Landslides are more common. Gridlock and lethargy take hold. Career politicians settle in.
If it seems like such a system is profoundly rigged, you’re right. At minimum, it’s undemocratic. At the worst, it’s biased and stifles opposing views.
Fast-forward to today and the Supreme Court case to be taken up in the fall involves Wisconsin, where the GOP-controlled Legislature reconfigured maps to ensure majority in the Assembly and congressional delegation. To critics, the arrangement means elected officials are essentially limiting the say of those whose political beliefs differ from theirs, testing the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
This is a murky legal area, and the Supreme Court has resisted creating limits on how legislative districts are figured.
However, a required change from the high court may be the only way deeply entrenched Illinois politicians will reform the election process. Last year, the state Supreme Court rejected a ballot proposal to let voters change the system. A federal court in 2011 denied a GOP challenge to Democrats redrawing Congressional boundaries.
Other calls for reform have stalled in part because any changes would have to be approved by the very lawmakers who benefit from the system. GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner has confronted this same roadblock as he’s pushed for term limits, another cause of endless dysfunction in Springfield.
This issue is especially important because the state’s continued population loss – about 37,000 in 2016 alone — will likely mean more substantial changes to maps when 2020 census data arrives.
Short of a Supreme Court mandate, an equitable solution to unfair legislative districts is to have maps drawn by an independent commission or based completely on census data. Diluting voter representation causes irreparable harm and is directly tied to the deep political divisions that make passing even a budget a major hurdle in our state. A larger array of political ideas and a more accurate voice of the people in decision-making is always better.
We’ll be watching the Supreme Court case closely.