PI Original Ashlee Rezin Monday July 15th, 2013, 12:02pm

Reform Advocates Pledge To Change Illinois' Redistricting Process Before Next Remap

Illinois’ redistricting process provides that the average resident doesn’t have fair electoral representation, according to supporters of a newly-formed campaign to change the way the state’s political lines are drawn. Progress Illinois takes a closer look at the state's remapping process.

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Illinois’ redistricting process provides that the average resident doesn’t have fair electoral representation, according to supporters of a newly-formed campaign to change the way the state’s political lines are drawn.

Dubbed “CHANGE Illinois,” a statewide coalition of stakeholders and non-profits recently launched a crusade for redistricting reform. The group is looking to detach legislators from the remapping process and establish a transparent, nonpartisan, independent citizen commission charged with redrawing Illinois’ state and congressional districts.

“The way it works right now is we have politicians choosing their voters instead of the people deciding who will represent them,” said Ryan Blitstein, president and CEO of CHANGE Illinois. “This is not a party issue and it’s not a policy issue, its really a problem in our structure of government and a voting rights issue.”

The group is in the preliminary phases of putting a proposed constitutional amendment on the November 2014 ballot that calls for the creation of an 11-member independent redistricting commission.

Comprised of a group of Illinoisans who are selected via a “standardized qualification process,” the commission is expected to “reflect the state’s geographic and demographic diversity.”

“The core problem with Illinois government is that political leaders own redistricting,” said Blitstein. “Behind closed doors, they remap the district boundaries to control who's going to be elected and it really does leave voters without a voice.”

An Auditor General appointed panel of three reviewers would choose the commission, according to the group’s draft amendment. The reviewers would choose the commission based on applications and a series of selection stages, including at least one random drawing.

The commission would host public hearings before and after the release of proposed district maps. Seven of the 11 commission members, including two Democrats, two Republicans and two unaffiliated members, would need to vote in favor of a redistricting plan in order for it to pass.

To be eligible for the commission under the proposal, applicants could not be sitting politicians, lobbyists or owners of state contracts, and must be found by the review panel to have “relevant analytical skills, impartiality, and an ability to contribute to a fair redistricting process.”

Following the “Change The Districts” statewide listening tour, CHANGE Illinois and partner redistricting reform coalition members announced last Tuesday the formation of the Yes For Independent Maps citizen-led ballot initiative.

The group released the finalized amendment and has begun collecting the 298,399 signatures necessary to place the initiative on the November 2014 ballot. The deadline to receive all of the signatures is May 4.

How Redistricting Works In Illinois

According to the state constitution, the Illinois General Assembly drafts the state’s legislative boundaries every 10 years following the release of the decennial Census.  

The U.S. Census Bureau data includes detailed tabulations of age, gender, race, economic class, and other categories, and is factored into how many congressional seats each state has.

Based on the 2010 census results, Illinois saw a population increase, but the state's growth did not keep up with population increases in the nation's South and West regions. As a result, Illinois' number of congressional seats was reduced from 19 to 18.

In addition to determining the legislative boundaries for Illinois’ 18 congressional representatives, redistricting also defines the political lines for the Illinois General Assembly’s 177 members.

“Over the past several decades the redistricting process has been misused by the political parties to further their political goals at the expense of the public’s interest,” said Whitney Woodward, senior policy analyst for the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (ICPR). ICPR has signed on to support the redistricting reform effort adopted by CHANGE Illinois.

As of now, members of both parties in the General Assembly are charged with working together to hash out an equitable map of political boundaries, which is then passed along to the governor for final approval.

If lawmakers fail to reach a consensus, which was the case in 1981, 1991, and 2001, the remapping responsibilities move to an eight-member backup commission. The Senate President, the Speaker of the Illinois House, and the House and Senate Minority Leaders are each responsible for selecting two members — one legislator and one member of the public — to be part of the commission. No more than four commission members can have the same party affiliation.

If the eight-member commission cannot agree on legislative boundaries, the Illinois Supreme Court suggests two individuals representing each political party to serve as the tiebreaker. The Secretary of State must then blindly choose one of those individuals to serve as a ninth member on the commission.

In 2001, the commission’s ninth member was selected by pulling a name from a replica of former President Abraham Lincoln's stovepipe hat.

Woodward said the random ninth member has the ability to “take all.”

“Whichever party has the majority at that point has the ability to run the table on the remapping process,” she said. “Then, district borders are drawn with such attention to detail that legislators are able to cut out likely challengers or opponents from geographic locations.”

The next round of redistricting is scheduled to take place immediately after the release of the 2020 decennial census data.

Woodward said she'd like to see redistricting reform implemented before the next remapping cycle.

"It's a wasted opportunity, and a shame, that Illinois voters who are interested in participating in the process aren't given the chance," she said.

What happened last time around?

In 2011, lawmakers were able to come to an agreement and passed remapping legislation for both state and congressional districts, which were then signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn.

The map largely favored Democrats and made election and re-election harder for Republicans.

Following the 2011 remap and 2012 elections, the make up of congressional delegates in Illinois shifted from 11 Republicans and eight Democrats, to six Republicans and 12 Democrats.

Former U.S. Reps. Joe Walsh, Bob Dold and Bobby Schilling, all of whom are Republican, lost their seats to U.S. Reps. Tammy Duckworth (D, IL-8)Brad Schneider (D, IL-10) and Cheri Bustos (D, IL-17), respectively. Longtime U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert lost her seatto former U.S. congressman Bill Foster in the 11th congressional district.

“Redistricting in Illinois doesn’t work because it is always gerrymandered for whichever party is in charge,” said Dick Simpson, former Chicago alderman and professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “This last time around it was the Democrats, but in other periods, with the toss of a coin, the Republicans have been able to do the gerrymandering.”

Simpson compared Illinois’ district lines, which include hooks and narrow strips of geography, to the relatively square legislative districts in Iowa. The Economist compared the shape of Illinois’ 17th congressional district to that of a crab that has “two claws stretch out towards the eastern part to grab Democratic cities.”

Iowa, Simpson pointed out, has a nonpartisan, citizen advisory board charged with drafting state redistricting maps. 

Illinois does not have an impartial process, he said.

“There are very few districts in which a balance is seen between Democrats and Republicans and there is seldom a straightforward election for an Illinois legislative seat,” he said, noting that the average Illinoisan doesn’t have fair representation during the redistricting process.

“Either the incumbent is protected or the political party is advantaged or both, and outside candidates with other points of view don’t have a chance to run in that district.”

What does the SCOTUS Voting Rights Act decision mean for redistricting?

A key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 required nine states, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, and certain counties to obtain advanced federal approval before making changes to election laws, including redistricting.

But last month the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) invalidated the equation used to decide which areas need federal oversight, or "preclearance.” Thus, each of the states and counties that previously needed preclearance, and have known histories of racial discrimination during election time, are now permitted to freely change their voting systems without consent from the U.S. Justice Department.

Simpson said most of the states and counties that formerly required preclearance will certainly see legislators pursue partisan advantage during the redistricting process.

Texas has already sought instatement of a Republican-drafted map that was suspended in 2012 under the Voting Rights Act.

“In Texas, Democrats can be certain of being discriminated against by the Republican Party,” said Simpson. “Just as here in Illinois the Democrats drew the map in a way to cut down the number of Republican elected officials, which had an immediate impact on the congressional delegation and the state legislature, the reverse will happen in Texas and now they won’t have to get approval from the federal government to make those changes.”

Simpson added that racial gerrymandering is a likely consequence of the SCOTUS decision, and that protections from racial discrimination during redistricting have been weakened through the ruling.

Although Illinois was not included in the most recent set of areas that needed preclearance and the SCOTUS decision does not impact the state’s redistricting process, Latinos and other minorities have a lot at stake when legislators draw political lines for the state.

According to Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Latino Policy Forum, Latinos were shortchanged during the 2011 redistricting process in Illinois.

“The potential of the Latino community to have sufficient concentration in districts to elect the representatives of their choice was stymied,” she said.

Several Latino populations in Illinois could have been kept whole within legislative districts, Puente said, but were instead split and divided. Because communities cross legislative borders, she noted, political representation is often unclear.

From 2000 to 2012, Illinois' Latino population grew from 12.3 percent to 16.3 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois reports the Latino population increased in 101 of the 102 counties between 2000 and 2010.

Although a number of Illinois' 177 state legislative districts have a Latino population of at least 50 percent, Puente said 13 districts with a Latino population of at least 65 percent could have been created in 2011. She said the remapping process potentially violated the Voting Rights Act’s ban on racial discrimination.

“Latinos have less political representation than what they could have had,” she said.

Puente  added that Illinois’ Latinos often rely on the legislators to push for increased investment in early childhood education, affordable housing, immigration reform and continued funding for community organizations that provide critical services for their community.

“There are too few voices and we have too little representation because more of those suburban supermajority districts were not created during the remapping process,” she said. “The more voices there are, the more opportunity for increased investment in the Latino community.”

A Call For Citizen-Led Redistricting

According to Blitstein, of CHANGE Illinois, the state’s politicians are not responsive to their constituents.

“Most people would agree that the Illinois government is in rough shape right now,” he said. “Despite the fact that there’s some very good public servants in Springfield, and some good people are trying to do their best, there are very high levels of corruption and most citizens have become very cynical.”

Blitstein pointed to a 2012 poll by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University (SIU), which found that 77 percent of Illinois voters surveyed thought corruption in the state’s government was widespread. Researchers polled more than 1,200 registered voters in both English and Spanish.

Meanwhile, only 4 percent of Illinois General Assembly races from 2002 to 2010 were competitive, according to CHANGE Illinois, which compiled data from the Illinois State Board of Elections.

In the 2012 general election, nearly 60 percent of candidates vying for a seat in the Illinois House ran unopposed, according to the State Board of Elections. Forty of the 69 uncontested races had a Democratic candidate. More than half of the candidates running for the Illinois Senate also ran unchallenged; 18 of the 30 unopposed races were Democratic.

“If I’m a legislator, what reason do I have to listen to the voters and my constituents if I have a 97 percent chance of winning in the next election,” asked Blitstein. “The answer is, of course, not much. The system really needs to be reformed so it is independent from politics.”

Blitstein pointed to California as a successful example of citizen-led redistricting. Following the 2008 passage of California’s Proposition 11, the Voters First Act, and the 2010 passage of Proposition 20, the Voters First Act for Congress, a 14-member citizen commission of five Democrats, five Republicans and four commissioners representing neither party, drafted the state's political maps in 2011.

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the remapping process resulted in less political gerrymandering and more competitive districts at both the state and congressional levels in the Golden State.

To bring similar redistricting to Illinois, not only have the ICPR and Latino Policy Forum signed on to CHANGE Illinois’ efforts, but the Better Government Association (BGA)Asian Americans Advancing Justice-ChicagoBusiness and Professional People for the Public InterestChicago Appleseed Fund for JusticeCommon Cause IllinoisIllinois PIRG, Metropolis Strategies and Reboot Illinois have also endorsed the campaign.

“We need mapping criteria that are nonpartisan,” said Blitstein. "So it’s transparent, and so the people of Illinois and the average citizen can get a sense of what’s going on in the process and participate in it.”

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