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Explaining how redistricting lines are drawn, what gerrymandering looks like in Illinois, and more.

What is redistricting?

Redistricting is the legally mandated process of redrawing a state’s legislative district lines.

Every 10 years, once the U.S. Census numbers are in, state legislatures redraw legislative district boundaries, which determine voting districts for both the U.S. Congress and state legislative elections. These lines are redrawn to better reflect population changes and shifts and to ensure each district roughly holds the same population size.

Districts must comply with equal population requirements under the U.S. Constitution and Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act which prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate against and diminish the voting rights of racial ethnic minorities.1

In Illinois however, the federal Voting Rights Act has been interpreted by the state Supreme Court “to only require creation of majority minority districts, and only after certain factors have been met.”2

Redistricting has become controversial because the manner in which these districts are redrawn can affect which political party or candidate wins the next election. If enough districts are configured to benefit one party, then redistricting has the potential to dictate which party has the majority control of a legislative or congressional body in a specific state.

All legislators in state governments, some lawmakers in local governments, and all legislators in the U.S. House are elected from districts. These districts—and the voters in them—are divided within a state to represent geographical territories. After an election, the voters are represented by a candidate who wins the most votes in a district. Therefore, the way voters are grouped into districts has a tremendous influence on which representatives get elected and which policies and laws are given greater priority.3

For example, a rural district composed mostly of coal workers will be more likely to elect a representative who fights for workers union rights, the interests of coal workers specifically, and one who has experience representing and protecting rank-and-file workers. City dwellers on the other hand, might be more inclined to elect someone with an entirely different ideology and focus on different priorities. In a similar manner, districts that are drawn to represent large populations of people with the same race, ethnicity, language, or political party are more inclined to elect representatives with similar characteristics.4

1 U.S Department of Justice, Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act,

2 Midwest Democracy Network, Redistricting and Representation in the Great Lakes Region, p. 12 (April 2013).

3 Justin Levitt, A Citizen’s Guide to Redistricting, Brennan Center For Justice, New York School of Law, p. 2 (2010).


Who draws the redistricting lines?

In most states, the state legislature has the primary responsibility for redrawing district lines. This takes place through the regular legislative process—like all legislation, the redistricting process requires a majority vote in each legislative chamber and is subject to a veto by the Governor.1

Some states, however, in an attempt to avoid gerrymandering, have established independent redistricting commissions to redraw boundaries. While the general assumption is that these commissions are nonpartisan or bipartisan bodies, that isn’t always the case.2

There are three types of commissions: Those whose primary responsibility is redistricting, those who merely serve in an advisory capacity to the legislature, and those who operate as a “backup” commission in the event that the state legislature does not meet its redistricting deadline.3 Thirteen states, including Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Washington, have established commissions whose primary responsibility is to draw a plan for state legislative districts.4

Maine, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia have advisory commissions in place. While most advisory commissions are established by a state’s constitution, others, as is the case in Iowa, are set by statute.5 In Iowa, the legislature votes on the redistricting plans and either accepts or rejects them after a nonpartisan bureau draws draft lines.6

Connecticut, Illinois, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas use backup commissions. In Illinois, the Commission is known as the “Legislative Redistricting Commission.” If the legislature fails to pass a redistricting plan, the task passes to the backup commission which consists of eight members. Two members each, only one of whom is a legislator, are selected by the President of the Senate, Senate minority leader, Speaker of the House, and House minority leader.7 At most, only four members on the Commission may have the same party affiliation.

1 Justin Levitt, All About Redistricting, Loyola Law School.

2 National Conference of State Legislatures, Redistricting Commissions: State Legislative Plans (Jan.25, 2018).



5 Brennan Center For Justice, New York School of Law, Who Draws the Maps? Legislative and Congressional Redistricting (Apr.14, 2017).


7 Levitt, supra note 1.

What is the difference between reapportionment and redistricting?


As reapportionment and redistricting are part of the same process, they are often used interchangeably, despite the fact that they are two distinct terms.

Reapportionment is the process of allocating seats in Congress. The process begins with a decennial census—a nationwide population count which includes all persons residing in the United States, including citizens, non-citizen legal residents, and illegal immigrants. This process of population data collection is mandated by the United States Constitution. Article I, Section 2, mandates that once the federal census is complete and the population count known, representatives are apportioned amongst each state and then assigned a select number of congressional seats in the U. S. House of Representatives.1

Since this process occurs every 10 years, so does the process of reapportionment. In 1910, the size of the U.S. House was fixed to 435 members by federal law.2 Therefore, the number of congressional seats each state gets is based on its population relative to the others nationwide because 435 is a fixed number.

Reapportionment thus, occurs at the federal level and is “exclusively the province of the national government.”3 The population count, however, is also relied upon at the state and local level.


States use the census numbers to allocate seats within their own legislatures while local governments rely on the census to allocate county, city and school board seats.4 Technically, this is called “redistricting.”

In Illinois, this process of redrawing the lines helps dictate representation in the Illinois House and the Illinois Senate. In Illinois and elsewhere redistricting has become controversial because the drawing of both sets of seats—in the Senate and the House of Representatives—is controlled by one political party or the other.5

Additionally, while all six states in the Midwest, including Illinois, require that legislative districts must be “contiguous” and reasonably “compact in legislative redistricting,”—Illinois does not apply the requirement for contiguity or compactness in congressional redistricting.6

1 Brian Johnson, Georgia State Senate, Senate Research Office, Reapportionment and Redistricting (July 2011).

2 Kristin D. Burnett, Congressional Apportionment, 2010 Census Briefs, U.S. Census Bureau (November 2011).

3 John S. Jackson & Lourenke Prozesky, Redistricting in Illinois, Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Illinois (April, 2005).



6 Midwest Democracy Network, Redistricting and Representation in the Great Lakes Region, p. 12 (April 2013).

What is gerrymandering?

Gerrymandering is the manipulation of the drawing of district lines to boost political power.1 Officials who are tasked with drawing these lines hold a lot of power. Gerrymandering is a conscious effort to redraw lines in a manner that “increases the likelihood of a particular political result.”2

It should be noted that the use of computers and mapping software advances now allow gerrymandering to be conducted with almost scientific precision. Officials can redraw intricate lines on a map, running in and out of small alleys and tiny dirt roads in an attempt to carve out a district that includes voters who will favor a certain official or political party in an upcoming election. It similarly allows for the exclusion of voters—lines are drawn to exclude them from districts so they do not hinder a candidate’s chance of winning an election.

While proponents of gerrymandering believe it is a natural and important part of the political process, opponents believe it represents “a distortion from a more equitable norm.”3

Politicians engage in gerrymandering for a wide variety of reasons. Primarily, they use it to give their party the best chance of winning a majority. It also can be used to protect incumbents.

1 Justin Levitt, A Citizen’s Guide to Redistricting, Brennan Center For Justice, New York School of Law, p.7 (2010).



What is the history of gerrymandering?

The earliest signs of gerrymandering were visible during the colonial period and prior to the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, when politicians were just beginning to experiment with a variety of ways in which they could manipulate electoral structures with an end to gaining an upper hand in politics. Malapportionment was only the beginning.1

The term “Gerrymandering” comes from the 19th century politician Elbridge Gerry, the Democratic-Republican governor of Massachusetts. He signed a redistricting bill into law in an attempt to ensure the Federalists—who held a majority among voters in the Commonwealth—remained politically subordinate.2 The result was mass indignation. So much so, that on March 26, 1812, The Boston Gazette featured a drawing by a critic— an artist—titled “A new species of Monster, which appeared in Essex South District in Jan. 1812.”

The drawing represented the Essex South—the state district for the Massachusetts legislature,3 except the artist added wings, claws, and a head to the outline of Gerry’s map claiming it looked like a ‘salamander.’ The press dubbed the creature as the “Gerry-mander” and since then, the practice of redrawing district lines to manipulate political gains in one party’s favor has been known as gerrymandering.4


In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court laid out the principle of "one person, one vote," in Reynolds v. Sims. The decision intimated that states must reasonably conceive plans for “periodic readjustment of legislative representation” and must “meet the minimal requirements for maintaining a reasonably current scheme of legislative representation.” This means that legislatures would have to redraw maps to account for population shifts. As a result of this decision, district lines have to be redrawn at least once after each census to account for population shifts. 5

1 Justin Levitt, A Citizen’s Guide to Redistricting, Brennan Center For Justice, New York School of Law, p.8 (2010).

2 Fred Drews, A Primer on Gerrymandering and Political Polarization, Brookings Now, The Brookings Institution (July 6, 2017).


4 Levitt, supra note 1.

Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U. S. 584-85. (“In substance, we do not regard the Equal Protection Clause as requiring daily, monthly, annual or biennial reapportionment, so long as a State has a reasonably conceived plan for periodic readjustment of legislative representation. While we do not intend to indicate that decennial reapportionment is a constitutional requisite, compliance with such an approach would clearly meet the minimal requirements for maintaining a reasonably current scheme of legislative representation. And we do not mean to intimate that more frequent reapportionment would not be constitutionally permissible or practicably desirable. But if reapportionment were accomplished with less frequency, it would assuredly be constitutionally suspect.”).

How is reapportionment manipulated?


This occurs when legislators ‘cram’ as many opposition voters into one district as possible in order to drain support for the opposition from their own neighboring districts.1


This occurs when legislators spread opposition voters very thinly across a number of different districts so it is practically impossible for them to gain a majority vote in any one of the districts.2

Both techniques significantly dilute the impact of opposition voters.

1 Justin Levitt, A Citizen’s Guide to Redistricting, Brennan Center For Justice, New York School of Law, p. 57 (2010).


How does redistricting occur in Illinois?

Illinois currently has 18 congressional districts. The map below1 represents Illinois’ congressional district boundaries as drawn following the 2010 United States Census:

Source: U.S. Geological Survey—The National Map

Redistricting in Illinois is a legislative process and is approved in the same way as any other piece of legislation.2 This is true for proposed maps of Illinois’ U.S. House delegation and the two chambers of the Illinois Legislature. However, if the General Assembly fails to meet the deadlines to have a redistricting plan in place by June 30 of the year following the completion of the U.S. Census, then a backup commission made up of eight legislators four from each party— takes over the process.

If, as occurred in 2000, a majority of the eight members also fail to agree on a redistricting plan, the state Supreme Court selects two individuals from different parties, one of whom serves as the tie-breaker on the Commission. This reconstituted commission then proceeds to drawing the maps. In the 2000 redistricting cycle, the tie-breaker’s name was pulled out of a stovepipe hat replicating the one worn by Abraham Lincoln.3

1 U.S. Geological Service, The National Map Small Scale.

2 Midwest Democracy Network, Redistricting and Representation in the Great Lakes Region, p. 12 (April 2013).

3 Aaron Chambers, State of the State: The Tie-Breaker Provision Has Become the Start of State Redistricting, NPR Illinois 91.9 UIS, (Oct.1, 2001).

What does gerrymandering in Illinois look like?

Below are two examples of the result of Illinois gerrymandering:

Example I

The 4th Congressional District of Illinois is a popular example of gerrymandering in Illinois. The boundary line on the far left, below, connecting the top portion of this one district to the bottom portion, is a single roadway.

The Fourth Congressional District in Chicago, frequently referred to as the “ear muff” district due to its shape, was drawn in an attempt to create a Hispanic-majority voting district. The drawing of this "ear muff" district was subsequently challenged under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S Constitution in King v. State Board of Elections, a 1996 Illinois Federal District Court case.1 The King court found that “racial considerations predominated in the configuration of . . . the district." However, the court held that the district's configuration was intended to remedy “an established Section 2 violation” against the Hispanic community in Chicago and therefore its creation served a compelling state interest that did not violate the Equal Protection Clause.2


Example II

The 5th Congressional District of Illinois, represented by Mike Quigley since 2009, is another example of Illinois gerrymandering. This sprawling district includes parts of Chicago as far east as Lake Michigan and stretches west to include parts of Elmhurst, Elmwood Park, Franklin Park, Hinsdale, La Grange Park, Norridge, River Grove, Schiller Park, and Oakbrook Terrace. The redistricting of these areas took place in 2011 following the 2010 census.


King v. State Bd. of Elections, 979 F. Supp. 582 (N.D. Ill. 1996).

2 Minnesota Senate Offices, Illinois Redistricting Cases: The 1990’s.

What is the status of redistricting reform in Illinois?

There have been three major citizen-driven1 attempts to eliminate partisan interests in the redistricting process in Illinois in recent years. Each attempt focused on conducting the process of redrawing map lines in a more independent fashion.

In 2010, the Illinois District Boundaries Amendment, also known as the Fair Map Amendment, was an initiative calling for the removal of the legislature's power in drawing boundary lines for the purposes of redistricting.2 The initiative failed to collect sufficient signatures and did not make the November 2010 ballot in Illinois.3 The Fair Map Amendment was heavily supported by the League of Women Voters, the Illinois Fair Map Amendment Coalition, and a host of other community organizations, including the Better Government Association.4

In 2014, a measure known as the “Yes! for Independent Maps” campaign initiated a constitutional amendment that sought to establish an independent commission tasked with redrawing district lines whose members would be assigned by the state Supreme Court.5 This amendment would have effectively taken the power to redraw the lines out of the hands of political leaders.6 However, the proposed amendment never made the ballot after Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan’s lawyers argued successfully that many of the petition signatures seeking to put the question to voters were not valid.

In 2016, a similar nonprofit group called Independent Maps collected 395,021 valid signatures and pushed for a constitutional amendment for legislative redistricting reform once again.7 However, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled the measure unconstitutional and struck it from the ballot.8

In 2018, those seeking less partisan mapmaking have proposed House Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 43 (HJRCA0043), which proposes to replace the current method of redistricting with a 16-member independent commission to be appointed by the Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court and the most senior Supreme Court judge of a different political party. The amendment requires that all districts represent substantially equal portions of the population, be compact in size, provide equal voting opportunities to racial and ethnic minorities, and comply with the federal Constitution and law. 9

Whereas previous attempts sought to change redistricting by getting approval from voters, which is a much more difficult and constitutionally restricted process in Illinois, HJRCA 43 represents an attempts to persuade lawmakers to change the redistricting process directly. Backers of the effort note that 105 out of 118 House members voted for a similarly designed proposal in 2016.

1 Editorial Board, Redistricting Reform: Will an Amendment Finally Make it on the Ballot? Chicago Tribune (Apr.29, 2016).

Illinois District Boundaries Amendment 2010

3 Illinois Fair Map Amendment, Citizens Movement to Take Back Illinois.

4 Independent Map Amendment, Supporters.

5 Independent Map Amendment, Independent Map Amendment Passes Petition Test at Board of Elections (May 24, 2016).

6 Midwest Democracy Network, Redistricting and Representation in the Great Lakes Region, p. 12 (April 2013).

7 Independent Map Amendment, supra note 37.

8 Rick Pearson, Sharply Divided Supreme Court Keeps Redistricting Off Fall Ballot, Chicago Tribune (Aug.26, 2016).

9 IL HJRCA0043 | 2017-2018 | 100th General Assembly. (2018, March 12).