Advocates for fair redistricting have been trying for a decade to take the job of drawing our state’s legislative maps away from politicians and assign it to an independent panel.

Public support is consistently strong. The Paul Simon Public Policy Institute polled on the subject seven times from 2010 to 2016, and again in 2019 and 2020. The most recent poll found 64 percent of voters favored an independent redistricting commission.

Credit: Alexandra Hardwick/BGA

The 2020 U.S. Census, which will trigger the next round of redistricting, raised the stakes in the spring legislative session as advocates made an urgent last push.

Their proposal, known as the Fair Maps Amendment (HJRCA41/SJRCA18), would have created a diverse and independent panel charged with drawing maps that don’t favor any political party. It called for compact, contiguous districts, drawn to protect minority representation, preserve communities of interest and respect geographic and municipal boundaries. And it spelled out an open and transparent process, with public input before and after the maps were drawn.

The May 3 deadline to place it on the ballot came and went, killing the chance to amend the constitution in time to affect the new maps.

An earlier version of the amendment never got so much as a hearing in the 2019 legislative session. Supporters rounded up 37 Senate sponsors — enough to pass the measure, if it were called for a vote. But those endorsements can be misleading. Similar amendments are almost always teed up in both houses, loaded with sponsors (especially in an election year). Candidates for re-election invariably express support for redistricting reform. But the measures never go anywhere.

Illinois isn’t the only state in which partisan mapmakers run amok.

Politicians are no doubt emboldened by the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to put limits on partisan gerrymandering. In a 5-4 ruling in July 2019, justices said such disputes are beyond the reach of federal courts. That wasn’t exactly a stamp of approval: Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, conceded that the maps before the court were “highly partisan, by any measure,” then basically shrugged. “How much is too much?”

Roberts said the solution is for states to write laws to limit gerrymandering, or for citizens to pass ballot initiatives. Several states have already done so.

In Illinois, it’s much easier said than done. The state Supreme Court has all but ruled out the possibility of a citizen-drafted amendment. That’s why the most recent efforts targeted lawmakers, who can put the measure on the ballot themselves — and have every incentive not to. They didn’t do it.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote an unsparing dissent in the redistricting case, said later that she would “never accept” the majority ruling.

“For all those people out there who in some way can carry on the efforts against this kind of undermining of democracy, go for it,” said Kagan, speaking at Georgetown University Law School, “because you’re right.”

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