The national “partisan arms race” that comes with the redistricting process is a leading obstacle for those who want to see states reform the way electoral district boundaries are drawn, said panelists at a redistricting reform discussion at the University of Chicago. Progress Illinois provides some of the highlights from the panel discussion.
The national “partisan arms race” that comes with the redistricting process is a leading obstacle for those who want to see states reform the way electoral district boundaries are drawn, said panelists at a redistricting reform discussion Wednesday night at the University of Chicago.
“There’s a mentality among legislatures that 'hey, if we’re Illinois and we’re Democrats, but let’s say North Carolina or Ohio, they’re Republicans and they’re gerrymandering Democrats out of office, then we’ve got to…fight back and gerrymander our lines as well',” said panelist David Wasserman, house editor for The Cook Political Report, which provides independent and non-partisan analysis of U.S. elections. "So how do you achieve bilateral disarmament in the redistricting process?"
Redistricting happens in states every 10 years following the release of the decennial Census. In most states, legislatures usually have control over drawing the boundaries for congressional and state legislative districts.
The last redistricting cycle followed the 2010 U.S. Census. The next round of redistricting is scheduled to take place after the release of the 2020 census data.
Panelists at the discussion, hosted by the university's Institute of Politics, talked about a number of consequences that may be the result of intentional partisan manipulation of electoral district boundaries, or gerrymandering. Some of these alleged outcomes include the political polarization of members of Congress; a lack of political competition; protection of incumbents; and districts that are difficult for voters to understand, which therefore dampens citizen participation.
Additionally, the more political maps are gerrymandered, the greater the disconnect between community members and the officials who represent them, said Ryan Blitstein, president and CEO of CHANGE Illinois, a campaign to reform the way the political lines are drawn in the state. (Click through for Progress Illinois' previous coverage of the initiative).
"There really is something fundamental to our democracy representation that's lost when we have these massive gerrymanders — whether they’re done for partisan reasons or whether they're done for other reasons entirely,” he stressed.
The panelists were asked about the prospect of a broad solution to the partisan gerrymandering issue, to which election law expert Nicholas Stephanopoulos, an associate law professor at the University of Chicago, said the odds of federal lawmakers taking action are zero “as long as we have divided government."
“It would take one party really running on this, making it an actual significant plank of the party’s platform, I think, before the odds became non-zero at the federal level,” Stephanopoulos noted.
He followed that up, however, by saying that the nation is potentially not that far away from “some sort of major judicial breakthrough in regulated partisan gerrymandering.”
There are four current Supreme Court justices, Stephanopoulos explained, who are open to a judicial standard that would make extreme partisan gerrymanders unlawful.
“The fifth vote, Anthony Kennedy, has expressed some openness to a couple of political science metrics that measure how fair or unfair different district plans are,” he continued. “Not to be morbid, but Anthony Kennedy is an old man. Other conservative justices are quite old. It would only take a switch of one vote on the Supreme Court to have a clear majority in favor of a standard with real teeth.”
At the state level, the panelists noted that citizen-led redistricting reforms have proven to be successful in some states. Most of the panelists specifically pointed to California, which currently has a "model" citizen-based redistricting commission, comprised of 14 citizens — five Democrats, five Republicans and four commissioners representing neither party. The commission drafted the state's political maps in 2011 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.
Overall, Wasserman said moving the remapping responsibility out of legislators' hands and prohibiting any partisan considerations or residencies of incumbents in the line drawing process is a good start for any redistricting reform.
Potential redistricting reforms being discussed in states should also place a focus on making districts as competitive as they can possibly be, added Jowei Chen, an assistant professor in the political science department at the University of Michigan.
Stephanopoulos noted that some foreign countries, such as Australia and Canada, have removed politicians from the process of drawing political lines through, what he called, a "big-bang federal reform."
"Everything does actually seem to function better when you stop involving politicians in this activity and remove that conflict of interest," he said. “There’s a case to be made for really ambitious uniform federal action that can actually solve this problem once and for all."
Here in Illinois, Blitstein said a majority of voters in the state who have been surveyed on the topic want to take the redistricting responsibilities out of the hands of legislators and give that power to an independent commission.
“Seventy percent of people say ‘yes’, and those numbers have only been going up the last several years,” Blitstein stressed. “There is a huge amount of political will among citizens, and those numbers are pretty similar in other states."
The issue in Illinois and other states, he said, is "getting over the hump of very powerful legislators and status quo protecting interests."
"There’s a lot of money against this in many states and a lot of power against this in many states,” he stressed.
Nonetheless, Blitstein said citizen-led redistricting reform is "absolutely possible if enough people get together, not [only] in Illinois, but in any state.”
How does the redistricting process currently work in Illinois?
Democratic and Republican members in the Illinois General Assembly work together to form a map of political boundaries. The governor has to give the map final approval.
The remapping responsibilities, however, are handed to an eight-member backup commission if lawmakers fail to reach an agreement on a plan, which was the case in Illinois in 1981, 1991, and 2001.
The legislature’s four legislative leaders — the Senate president, the speaker of the Illinois House, and the House and Senate minority leaders — each select one legislator and one member of the public to sit on the commission. Of the eight commission members, no more than four can be of the same party affiliation.
If the backup commission also fails to reach a consensus, the Illinois Supreme Court recommends two individuals representing each political party to act as potential tiebreakers. The Secretary of State is charged with blindly picking one of the two individuals to become the ninth commission member.
During the last redistricting cycle in Illinois, state lawmakers were able to reach an agreement and signed off on remapping legislation in 2011 for both state and congressional districts. Gov. Pat Quinn later signed the remapping bill into law.
The map was friendlier to Democrats and made election and re-election more difficult for Republicans.
For example, the composition of Illinois’ congressional delegates changed from 11 Republicans and eight Democrats to six Republicans and 12 Democrats following the 2011 remap and the 2012 elections.
Natural trends versus intentional partisan gerrymandering
The University of Michigan's Chen has looked into the various alleged consequences of partisan gerrymandering through the use of computer-simulated research. As part of his research, Chen set out to find whether non-partisan redistricting plans drawn by a computer look different than what the legislatures actually drew up as part of the last redistricting cycle.
He asked a computer to draw districts that are relatively compact, equally populated and do not favor one party over another, while also making sure that districts protected under the Voting Rights Act are preserved.
According to his findings, “partisan gerrymandering for the entire country as a whole in the aggregate isn’t really the primary driver of polarization. [It] isn’t the driver of the creation of all these safe seats,” Chen said.
Demographic trends and residential clustering among Democrats and Republicans are behind a lot of the relatively safe congressional seats on both sides of the aisle right now, he argued.
"Now, more than ever in our country’s history, Democrats are more clustered in urban areas in urban districts," he said, adding that an increasing number of Republicans are congregating in more moderate suburban and rural districts.
“You can counteract them a bit by trying to undo those patterns by gerrymandering the other way by intentionally drawing districts to try and be a little more competitive, but you can’t blame partisan gerrymandering for the fact that congressional races tend to be so lopsided these days,” Chen stressed.
But Wasserman argued that partisan gerrymandering "has compounded the natural residential choices of voters in the electorate."
Partisan gerrymandering and residential clustering of Democrats and Republicans work together to polarize districts, he said.
"If you look at Illinois, and the fact that Democrats were only able to draw a 12 [Democrats] to six [Republicans] map, versus North Carolina, where Republicans were able to draw essentially a 10 [Republicans] to three [Democrats] map, well Illinois is more Democrat than North Carolina is Republican," he explained. "The way that Democrats are clustered in the electorate…(has) really hurt Democrats and biased the electoral outcomes in the House in favor of Republicans."
Towards the end of the discussion, one audience member asked the panelists whether Illinois or Florida takes home the prize for the most gerrymandered state.
Florida had "arguably nicer looking districts" than Illinois during the last redistricting cycle, Stephanopoulos said, but "if you look at the actual consequences of the districts, there’s more of a pro-Republican distortion" in Florida.
"That means that Florida was probably the worst of the gerrymanders in the last cycle," he added. "It’s not the worse of the gerrymanders now. Now, [with] states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, [and] Texas, there’s a lot more options now for worst gerrymanders in America.”