For decades, Illinois has not had a fair or logical system to draw legislative districts. While lawmakers from both parties are trying to change that this year, politics is getting in the way.
Delegates to the 1970 constitutional convention in Illinois made several historic improvements to the state's outdated founding document and produced one of the most comprehensive Bill of Rights anywhere in the nation. But they did come up short on one crucial reform: developing a fair and logical system to draw legislative districts.
Under current law, when the state redraws district maps every ten years (based on the latest U.S. Census count), the task falls to the state legislature. In theory, members of both parties work together to hash out an equitable map, which is then passed along to the governor for final approval. In practice, lawmakers never reach consensus. Here's our description of how the process has worked in recent decades:
When faced with a deadlock, legislative leaders appoint four Republicans and four Democrats to serve on a redistricting commission whose job it is to iron out disputes that emerged in the General Assembly. Over the past three decades, this bipartisan commission wasn't able to overcome political arguments, either. That intransigence has resulted in a reliance on the infamous "coin flip" tiebreaker. Each party nominates one additional member to join the commission. The Secretary of State then selects at random which of the two candidates will fill the ninth spot on the commission, giving one of the parties majority control to slice and dice the state as their leaders see fit.
Ironically, the folks who constructed the new constitution in 1970 inserted this insane tiebreak system as a means to force compromise. "Framers of the plan thought that surely no politicians would roll the dice on such a random winner-take all way of dividing the districts," writes Illinois Issue's Jamey Dunn. "However, legislators have gone with this option almost every time."
With census takers already sweeping neighborhoods across the state, election reformers and members of both parties are now pushing to reform the redistricting process. Not surprisingly, politics is getting in the way once again.
Back in January, a coalition of good government groups -- including the League of Women Voters, the Better Government Association, and the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (ICPR) -- outlined their proposal, dubbed the Illinois Fair Map Amendment. Senate Republicans have since aligned themselves with the reform crowd, agreeing to rally behind the citizen's initiative, a proposed constitutional amendment first laid out by Gov. Pat Quinn's Illinois Reform Commission. Together, they're working to collect the 500,000 signatures needed to get the measure on the ballot in November. If they succeed, here's how the new process would look:
If enacted, an "independent" commission of nine members -- meaning no lawmakers, lobbyists, or state employees -- would get the first crack at writing the maps. Like the tiebreaker commission in the current law, each party's legislative leaders would choose four members to participate. The ninth would be appointed by the commission itself. Legislators in each chamber would vote on the first map the group produces. If it doesn't pass with a hefty two-thirds majority, the commission gets a second opportunity to modify their first version. If the General Assembly votes the second version down as well, then the commission must pick one of their two maps. If gridlock prohibits the commission from reaching consensus, the chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court and one justice of the opposing political party would appoint a "special master" to make the ultimate decision.
Supporters think that giving the new commission the primary obligation of crafting new districts will add more transparency and accountability to the process. Some progressives aren't totally convinced. After all, legislative leaders would pick the bulk of the appointees. "Sitting there and trying to say that legislators aren’t drawing the map while the four leaders appoint representatives," Archpundit wrote on Friday, "is a distinction without a difference."
Senate Democrats are also concerned with the possibility of vote dilution in majority-white districts represented by politicians of color, such as State Reps. Linda Chapa LaVia (D-Aurora), James Clybourn (D-East St. Louis), and State Sen. Toi Hutchinson (D-Olympia Fields). The language in the reform amendment locks the state into the current language of the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA), Section 2 of which prohibits minority vote dilution. But that law does not explicitly require the creation of "minority-influence districts," where people of color are not a majority of the voting age population but are large enough to ensure that their interests are considered.
Although Senate Democrats have not introduced a competing bill, last week they laid out their guidelines as they finalize their proposal. Frankly, the outlined legislation strongly resembles the Fair Map plan in many ways. Both approaches involve eliminating “nesting” -- the requirement that two House districts sit inside the boundaries of every Senate district. Doing away with that restriction, lawmakers argue, will allow districts to better reflect communities of interest, including municipal boundaries and ethnic or racial populations. Also, neither proposal calls for computer-drawn maps, which experts say are unworkable in Illinois because the state has to take into account demographic factors if it's to stay compliant with the VRA. Both calls for districts to be drawn so they are contiguous and reasonably compact. And if that mapping process ultimately stalls, the chief justice of the Supreme Court and a justice from the other party would also choose a "special master" to break the tie.
The major difference between the two proposals is who draws the maps initially. The Senate Dems' bill would give that power to the General Assembly itself. If three-fifths of the legislature cannot agree on a map, a 14-member commission (appointed by the legislative leaders) would then take up the task. The "special master" takes over if the commission deadlocks. Fair map advocates say keeping the redistricting process in the hands of the legislature dooms the proposal from the start. State Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago), who is leading his caucus' campaign, argues their process is more representative and less beholden to the "Four Tops" than a commission filled with political appointees. "I think there’s more ability to embrace the diversity of our great state," Raoul said at a Springfield press conference last week, "if you have 177 voices involved in the process." Watch it:
Instead of embracing the common ground they share and forging a compromise on a joint constitutional amendment, lawmakers so far have used the redistricting process to bludgeon their political opponents. The heated rhetoric is only being fueled by animosity over how House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) handled campaign finance reform last session. The GOP isn't going to give in so long as they can continue to score political points in the press. And there's only so much room on the November ballot for multiple amendments.
Unless the reformer and legislators can come to some agreement between now and May, we might witness another coin flip in 2011.