Everybody Says They Want a Fair Map. But What Does That Mean?

It's inherently unfair for lawmakers to draw their own districts, but that's what we're stuck with in Illinois. Check out our non-partisan maps for comparison.

Joann Wong / BGA

You probably noticed that your November ballot didn’t include a constitutional amendment to create an independent commission to draw new legislative maps. Strong majorities of Illinois voters have told pollsters repeatedly that they want to take the job away from lawmakers, who have a vested interest in drawing their own districts. But those lawmakers aren’t going to give up the pen. 

Still, our elected officials assure us they want fair maps. (Never mind that one of the most vehement arguments for keeping Mike Madigan as House speaker was that his gerrymandering skills would be needed this year to draw the districts.)  New speaker Chris Welch says he believes in fair maps. Gov. J.B. Pritzker has promised he’ll veto a map that isn’t fair.

So what’s a fair map? 

Last year, the BGA hired Chicago consultants Rob Paral and James Lewis to draw simulated maps 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 avoid busting up communities. Unlike the lawmakers who drew the existing maps, our consultants didn’t consider voter history or addresses of incumbents. (You can see the interactive maps and analysis and read about their methodology here.

Of course we could have drawn any number of maps by applying the same principles. Because it was a simulation, we left out an important step: Public input. By listening to citizens, mapmakers are better able to draw districts that reflect the communities within.

That’s our idea of a fair map. 

Our maps are not simple. 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. Our mapmakers were able to maintain the number of African-American legislative districts, despite continued losses in that population, and to increase Latino representation to reflect those gains. But those districts are especially squiggly, and that in turn affects the boundaries of other districts.

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

The new Illinois maps won’t be drawn by an independent commission, alas. There is zero chance that incumbency and voting history won’t dictate how the boundaries are drawn. And that's where the concept of compact, community-centric districts can fly right out the window.

Protecting (or unseating) incumbents and sorting voters into red and blue districts complicates the task considerably. That’s a big reason the current districts are so much more misshapen than those on the BGA maps. There’s even a metric for that: The Polsby-Popper test assigns a value between 0 and 1, with 1 the most compact. Our districts scored an average of 0.263, compared to 0.166 for the current districts.

Something you might not have expected: Though blind to voter history, our maps wouldn’t dramatically change the state’s partisan balance.  All three maps — House, Senate and Congress — would likely elect strong Democratic majorities. But the numbers suggest there would be a handful of swing districts, and many other districts would be competitive. That’s a plus for voters. Red or blue isn’t the only element of fair representation, after all.

The scary news for incumbents is that a map drawn to keep communities intact is not guaranteed to preserve “their” districts.  On our maps, a surprising number of them would find themselves in a district with another incumbent, while some new districts would have no incumbent. 

You’ve probably heard it said that in Illinois, our representatives pick their voters instead of the other way around. It’s true anywhere that politicians draw the maps, especially if one party has a heavy upper hand. And it’s true no matter which party that is. 

Lawsuits over whether a map is “fair” invariably focus on whether Democrats have disenfranchised Republicans, or vice versa. A better question is whether it protects incumbents at the expense of voters.

This column was published in the State Journal-Register.

 

 

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