BGA President & CEO Andy Shaw examines gerrymandering in and near Illinois in his bi-weekly column for Crain’s Chicago Business.
Illinois lawmakers have been justifiably castigated for their failure, until recently, to pass a budget and an equitable school funding plan, and they still haven’t reformed the state’s antiquated tax system, eased the pension crisis or adopted pro-business reforms that facilitate job creation.
But those same leaders and their predecessors deserve accolades for enacting major election reforms that make it much easier to register and vote, and exploring ways to begin leveling the campaign finance playing field.
Those initiatives are necessary if we hope to restore the health of an ailing democracy that will only be robust when more of us study the issues and vote for good candidates, and it’s easier and more attractive to run for public office.
Another key element of the rehab program—some consider it the most important one—is redistricting reform: Establishing nonpartisan geographic boundaries for legislative districts that encourage competition, instead of political fiefdoms designed to protect incumbents—an aberration known as “gerrymandering.”
Here’s how it works in Illinois: The party that controls the legislature and the governor’s office, or wins a lottery drawing if power is divided, draws the boundaries of 177 state legislative districts after every decennial census.
Mapmakers aided by sophisticated computer analyses of voting patterns create as many districts as possible with comfortable majorities of voters from their party, and as few districts as possible with a majority from the opposition party.
That exercise benefitted Illinois Republicans in the 1990’s and it’s favored Democrats since 2000, enabling them to parlay strategic mapmaking into ironclad control of the House and Senate.
The problem is that gerrymandering is undemocratic—one pundit calls it “the birthplace of corruption”—because it drastically reduces the number of competitive races, which diminishes voter interest and lowers turnout.
That perversion of representative democracy prompted reform organizations, including the Better Government Association, to support initiatives aimed at ending gerrymandering by shifting the mapmaking from political parties to an independent commission, but those efforts fell short in the Illinois legislature and failed legal tests in state courts, leaving us with very few options until now.
Our new hope is a Wisconsin redistricting case that was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court this past week, and a favorable outcome could reform mapmaking in up to 20 states, including Illinois.
The issue is clear: Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin gerrymandered to the nth degree after the 2010 census to cement legislative control and enfeeble Democrats for the next decade.
But did those GOP legislators, in their mapmaking zeal, also violate constitutional protections of our voting rights, or our freedom of speech and assembly?
And if they did, what does that mean for states like Illinois, where gerrymandering is undemocratic but much less egregious than Wisconsin, according to a study that formed the basis for a recent BGA story.
The high court has declined, in recent years, to wade into these highly charged political waters, but the plaintiffs in the Wisconsin case, armed with a new definition of gerrymandering excess, convinced the Justices to explore the constitutional issues.
The outcome of this case could have such far-reaching political implications for legislative and perhaps Congressional mapmaking that 54 individuals and groups from all over the country filed briefs for and against Wisconsin’s redistricting in the run-up to the high court hearing.
The ruling, expected next spring, could dramatically alter redistricting rules in Wisconsin, and hopefully Illinois, or leave things where they are now—in the hands of craven politicians.
Incredibly high stakes for voters, reform groups and, most importantly, the long-term health of our democracy. Fingers crossed.