What would fair legislative maps of Illinois look like?

How might they differ from the current maps, drawn by partisans to benefit partisans?

To find out, the Better Government Association hired Rob Paral and Associates to produce simulated maps for Congress and both houses of the Illinois General Assembly, following the principles of independent redistricting: We asked them to draw compact, contiguous districts that were close to equal in population, that protect minority representation and preserve communities. They were not to consider voter history or addresses of incumbents. (You can learn more about how they did it here.)

Only after the maps had been completed did they plot the homes of incumbents and overlay voter data to project the likely outcome of elections using these hypothetical maps.

Here’s what we learned:

1. It’s harder than it sounds.

Even nonpartisan maps are “gerrymandered” to some degree. That’s because of conflicting priorities — the need to protect minority representation vs. the need to draw compact districts, for example — and because populations are scattered and geographic boundaries, natural or political, are irregular. Still, when viewed beside the existing maps drawn in 2011, the BGA’s maps are simpler. Districts are less sprawling, and communities are largely intact. That’s because our mapmakers didn’t complicate the job by trying to protect allies or punish enemies.

2. Protecting minority representation will be a challenge after the 2020 census.

This will be true no matter who draws the maps, given projected population shifts in Illinois. Still, our mapmakers were able to draw districts designed to preserve the number of African-American lawmakers and perhaps increase Latino representation.

Despite big losses in the African-American population, our mapmakers elected to draw 18 state legislative districts and three congressional districts with African-American majorities — the same as the current maps. Those majorities are not strong, meaning voter turnout would be crucial if African-Americans were to elect a representative of their choice. The alternative would be to draw fewer districts with stronger majorities.

The BGA’s statehouse map adds one likely Latino district, for a total of 15. Our congressional map maintains one district with a Latino majority and includes a second district with enough Latino voters to strongly influence an election.

Our mapmakers were careful to maintain the basic district configuration around Chicago’s Chinatown, which is currently represented by an Asian-American legislator.

3. Independent mapping would not turn this blue state red.

All three of our maps — U.S. House, state House and state Senate — would probably elect mostly Democrats. This is Illinois, after all. The likely partisan balance, based on voter history in individual districts, would remain more or less the same, assuming the handful of swing districts don’t fall one way. For example, the Illinois House now has 74 Democratic members and 44 Republicans. Our map includes 70 districts that are likely Democrat, 36 that are likely Republican and 12 toss-ups.

Credit: Alexandra Hardwick/BGA

4. Incumbents, however, couldn’t count on the usual protections.

Instead of plotting those addresses and building districts around them, our mapmakers ignored the incumbents and worked in the best interests of voters. The result: A surprising number of incumbents would find themselves in a district with another incumbent — sometimes from the same party, sometimes not. For General Assembly members, that means the incumbents would have to run against each other; they could also elect to move to another district or decide not to seek re-election. (U.S. House members aren’t required to live in the district they represent.) Even incumbents who find themselves alone in a district would have to work harder to keep their seats, because the boundaries weren’t drawn to benefit them specifically.

If the BGA’s simulated statehouse map replaced the current map after the coming round of redistricting, dozens of House and Senate seats would be open because there are no incumbents in those new districts.

It’s easy to see why this is bad news for incumbents (and why lawmakers want to continue to draw the maps themselves). But it’s good news for voters. Here’s why: Incumbents who aren’t confident about re-election are more responsive to constituents, less likely to adopt extreme positions and more likely to compromise. They’re accountable to the people they represent, not the party leaders who draw their districts.

In Illinois, more than 95 percent of incumbents seeking re-election in recent years were returned to office, but that wasn’t necessarily a vote of confidence. In a typical election, more than half of them run unopposed: When a district is stacked to favor one party, the other rarely fields a candidate. Voter turnout suffers, too, because why bother?

In the 2018 general election, 18 of 39 Senate races were uncontested and 50 of 118 House races — or 43 percent overall. And that was a good year. It was 60 percent in 2016, 56 percent in 2014 and 56 percent in 2012. In the 2020 general election, 45 percent of seats — 11 of 22 in the Senate and 52 of 118 in the House — drew only one candidate.

The notion that unhappy voters can “throw the bums out” doesn’t apply if there’s only one name on the ballot. To hold lawmakers accountable, voters need competitive elections.

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