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Democracy by lottery

Illinois is unique in how it selects the party that controls the political redistricting process.
Voters might want to play more of a role this time around

by Bethany Jaeger

The Illinois General Assembly has one year and seven months to meet a constitutional deadline it has failed to meet each of the past three decades. But in 2011, the process of redistricting — redrawing the state’s congressional and legislative maps — could be different.

Headlines leading up to the 2011 redistricting process are likely to be that Illinois is expected to lose at least one congressional seat next year, maybe even two if not all residents are counted. But other changes will affect the way Illinois settles on a new map.

First, the population is shifting and expanding, partially from immigration trends nationwide. And more detailed data than ever will be available when the U.S. Census Bureau releases 2010 population estimates to the states, as required by April 2011.

Second, Illinois’ political circumstances have changed. Democrats control both chambers of the General Assembly and, at least for another year, the governor’s office. That increases the chance — but does not guarantee — that a redistricting plan could be in place before the June 30, 2011, deadline.

Last, Illinois legislators won’t be the only ones submitting redistricting plans. They’ll have at least some competition from the public.

The consequences are many.

The way the congressional and legislative maps look not only determines the political makeup of the state’s delegations, but it also determines the distribution of government funding and goes hand-in-hand with the policy decisions made by the political party in power.
The League of Women Voters of Illinois is one of the most vocal proponents of change.

“The climate is ripe for it,” says Mary Schaafsma, project manager for the league’s Census 2010 campaign and redistricting reform project. “People are frustrated with the government, and if we can create a good public education campaign that really helps people understand — both individual citizens and residents of Illinois [and] groups that depend on state funding — they will hopefully appreciate the relationship between our inability to get good public policy through the legislature and the way in which the state is redistricted after each census.”

The process starts with the U.S. Census Bureau, which reapportions the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives based on the new population estimates.

Then, per the 1970 Illinois Constitution, the General Assembly must redraw the congressional and legislative maps. Each state does it differently and sets its own priorities.

The caveat for redistricting purposes, however, is that the U.S. Census counts voting age, ethnicity and language — not citizenship. That means legislators will be considering blocks of ethnicities or blocks of people who are 18 and older, but they won’t know in time for the 2011 mapmaking process whether they are citizens who can actually vote, according to Peter Wattson, a national redistricting expert and secretary and counsel for the Minnesota state Senate.

That could be particularly applicable in the suburbs of Chicago. During an Illinois Senate hearing in the summer, Wattson said minorities have polarized themselves by moving out to the suburbs, while partisan groups have compacted themselves together. So candidates are getting elected from more polarized districts.

That trend combines with Illinois’ recent history of allowing one political party to control the entire mapmaking process. Legislative leaders tend to draw maps that favor their political parties and, for the most part, districts that protect incumbents.

It started after Illinois adopted its 1970 Constitution, creating a unique tie-breaking provision with unintended consequences. Because legislative leaders have hit a stalemate in three out of four redistricting cycles, they by default have left control of the mapmaking process to chance. The tie-breaking system has included the secretary of state pulling a name out of a replica of Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hat or, in another instance, a fishbowl. The name of the Democrat or Republican drawn has determined which party controls the process: Democrats were picked in 1981, Republicans in 1991 and Democrats in 2001.

Tim Storey, a senior fellow in legislative management with the National Conference of State Legislatures, says Illinois is unique in its random selection, but that may not be a good thing. “It just seems like the stakes are too high to leave it to chance, that there ought to be more of a process that’s transparent, that involves all parties being able to engage in the process.”

Cynthia Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, agrees and says the only time legislative redistricting plans are parsed out in public is when they’re challenged in court. “This notion that you draw a name out of Lincoln’s hat and then go back into a back room with the computer and draw the map, [it’s] completely out of view because it’s not even a map that is up for negotiation.”

The approach has resulted in politicians picking their voters rather than the other way around, says John Jackson, a political scientist and visiting professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Without competitive elections, “it is almost impossible for the people to hold their rulers accountable and for public opinion to play much role in the making of public policy,” he wrote in a 2005 paper for the institute.

Furthermore, he recently added, the lack of competitive races polarizes the General Assembly. “You don’t get enough people that are willing to be somewhere in between and work on the moderating influences of having to negotiate and give and take as the legislative process demands.”

What’s different this year leading up to the redistricting cycle is that Democrats control the Illinois House, Senate and governor’s office. While the 2010 elections will determine whether Democrats will retain control of the governor’s office, Canary says the Democratic majority could meet its constitutional deadline and avoid picking a name out of a hat.

“I’m fairly certain that the Democrats have the votes to [approve] their map,” she says.

But it will be up to the next governor, whether Democratic or Republican, to sign it into law.

The solid Democratic majority also doesn’t guarantee more public input, says Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the University of Illinois Springfield.

“We’re going to have hearings, we’re going to have a commission. We may even have a couple of constitutional amendments that will get discussed in committees. But as long as the Demo-crats believe that they can control the process and get a map into law by passing it and having a Democratic governor sign it, then they’re not going to give up control of the process.”

House Speaker Michael Madigan, who has held that position since 1983, other than for two years in the mid-’90s, says the current process works.

“I think that the redistricting worked real well in the ’90s,” he said in August. “It showed that it does work because, you recall, in 1991, the Republicans drew the lines. And then House Democrats won four or five elections. That’s something Tom Cross doesn’t talk about.”

Tom Cross is House Republican leader. He and Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno sent a letter to the governor in August requesting a special legislative session to debate redistricting reforms.

“We believe nothing is more critical to achieving real, systemic reform than ending the partisan political gerrymandering of legislative and congressional districts,” they wrote.

Patty Schuh, spokeswoman for the Senate Republicans, said the caucus supports redistricting reforms recommended by Quinn’s Illinois Reform Commission.

The recommendations include creating independent advisory committees and consultants to produce three separate maps: one for the Illinois House districts, one for the Senate and one for congressional districts. Public hearings would precede a vote by the Illinois General Assembly. The process would have judicial oversight, and computer software would help draw the maps to ensure minority representation.

The longstanding joke — although it’s based on an actual scenario — is that Springfield residents can play a game of golf on a course that runs through three different congressional districts.

Another nationally renowned map depicts the 4th Congressional District drawn in 1992, aptly named the “earmuff” district for its two circular earpieces that were connected by an arched headband. It was intentionally drawn to congregate Hispanic voters into one district with a 64 percent majority. It wrapped around a predominantly African-American neighborhood.

The plan was challenged in court as an unconstitutional “racial gerrymander,” where lines were intentionally drawn to consolidate a specific racial group. While the federal court agreed that it did constitute racial gerrymandering, it decided the shape was justified as a way to ensure Hispanic voters had equal opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice without splitting the neighboring African-American district.

“The earmuff district is famous because it is one of the very few examples where a court has said, ‘Yes, this is potentially a problem under the Constitution, but compliance with the Voting Rights Act saves it,” says Nate Persily, a law professor at Columbia Law School.

The Illinois Constitution requires that congressional and legislative districts be “compact, contiguous and substantially equal in population.” But states also have to abide by the federal Voting Rights Act, designed to secure adequate representation of racial and language minorities.

Iowa, which has a unique redistricting system, draws three separate maps for the state House, Senate and congressional delegation, as well. But legislative staff draw the maps and cannot look at so-called political data, including voting results, party registration or incumbents’ addresses.

“These plans are drawn only using the census data in Iowa,” says Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Iowa, however, is also different for having a relatively low minority population. According to Storey, in the 2000 round of redistricting, Iowa’s minority population was less than 5 percent, which included Latino and African-American voters.

“It would be much more challenging in a large minority population state to use the Iowa model because you have to be so concerned about the Voting Rights Act,” Storey says.

That concern includes Illinois, says Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat chairing the Senate hearings throughout the state.

Members of the public are expected to have a new way to participate in 2011.

The Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois is in the beginning stages of coordinating a public contest to redraw the political maps. It would be similar to a contest conducted in Ohio last year.

Robert Rich, executive director of the Illinois institute, says anyone interested will be able to learn the constitutional requirements for redistricting and use special software to draw the maps. The contest is part of the institution’s multi-faceted effort to educate the public and research what works in other states.

But the contest, he says, could draw attention to the thought: “Hey, there may be some alternative ways of doing this. And guess what. You can have a major impact on how districts look just by changing different assumptions.”

Illinois Rep. Mike Fortner, a West Chicago Republican, did that in Ohio’s public contest. He submitted one of the top three plans for that state’s congressional map. Although it was a test run based on 2000 data, Fortner says, “One thing that they found was that every one of the publicly submitted plans beat the score of the map that was actually approved by the Ohio legislature.”

The Ohio secretary of state sponsored the contest and provided access to geographic information systems, or GIS, mapping software on the Ohio State University’s Internet server. Each user applied in advance and got a secure account. They had to follow certain criteria, such as drawing compact districts.

Fortner’s map for Ohio produced rectangular districts and would have resulted in nine Republicans, eight Democrats and one virtual tie.

“Whether you have a commission, whether you have a special master, everybody brings their own personal biases,” Fortner says. “Rather than try to find the mythical, neutral, unbiased mechanisms, let’s just admit that everyone’s got biases. Let the biases out there and then rely on the scoring system to sort out the best plan.”

Storey says public versions could come into play if state-drawn plans are taken to court.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that that may be the biggest change from 10 years ago. There will be far more public involvement in actually drawing legitimate plans as alternatives.”

Canary says Illinois citizens, once educated about the importance of redistricting, hold the key for reform.

“I think that the legislature may be open to a bit more transparency and a few tweaks, but I don’t think that they have an interest in letting go of their control of the process.”

Illinois Issues, November 2009


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Brad McMillen explains district map

Brad McMillan, executive director of the Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service at Bradley University, explains Illinois’ oddly shaped districts during a Statehouse news conference last spring.

bullet Illinois District Maps

bullet Commission States

bullet Redistricting timeline

December 31, 2010 — U.S. Census submits data to the president.
April 1, 2011 — Census data must be submitted to the states.
June 30, 2011 — Illinois deadline for approving a legislatively drawn map.
July 10, 2011 — If the legislature misses the deadline, an eight-member commission is formed.
August 10, 2011 — Commission deadline for filing a plan with the secretary of state.
September 1, 2011 — If the commission misses its deadline, the Illinois Supreme Court submits names of two people from different political parties to the secretary of state.
September 5, 2011 — Secretary of state draws one of the names out of a hat; that person becomes the ninth and majority member of the commission.
October 5, 2011 — Nine-member commission deadline for submitting a plan to the secretary of state with approval of at least five members.