Greising: In Illinois, It's Easy to Forget What a Fair Election Looks Like

In states where gerrymandering has been stamped out, competitive elections are the norm. But not in Illinois.

(Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

BGA President David Greising writes a regular column for Crain's Chicago Business.

The hurly-burly around Super Tuesday produced an election event unlike anything we have seen. From Joe Biden's huge margin in the South Carolina primary to the moment Michael Bloomberg bailed out, the days were filled with momentous, surprising twists.

Labor unions and office workers, old and young, progressive and conservative: They all had their say. Candidates courted every ethnic cohort. County by county across the country, the electoral maps were a checkerboard of competing factors and forces that contributed to the results.

The candidates competed in the diners, the school gyms, the farmyards, the convention halls. They went over the airwaves, door to door, even selfie by selfie. They put out plans, paid out millions, secured endorsements and always, always stayed on the move.

This is what a fair election looks like. This is what happens when every interest group can have its say, when results can't be taken for granted, when ideas, organization, communication and leadership are the keys to success.

That level of competition for votes is possible on the state level, too. In states where gerrymandering has been stamped out, competitive elections are the norm.

In our state, the electoral map intentionally is drawn to be hubbub-free. The civics books talk about one person, one vote. As often as not, the Illinois gerrymandering playbook reduces that notion to a bizarre distortion: It's one candidate, one district.

Here's the math: In the 2018 election, half of the state's House and Senate districts saw uncontested races. All the candidates needed to do was get on the ballot to punch their tickets to Springfield. Another large number had two names on the ballot, but rigged mapmaking made them uncompetitive anyway. The 2016 race was worse: Nearly 60 percent of races were uncontested.

No wonder turnout is so low.

The gerrymandering of Illinois' electoral maps takes away a basic right—the right to pick our elected representatives. In recent years, Democrats have controlled the process. But that wasn't always the case. Until the 2002 election, Republican majorities controlled the Senate. They took part in gerrymandering, too.

Gerrymandering is less about party and more about protecting incumbency, regardless of party. Even in Democrat-dominated Illinois, certain districts intentionally are secured for incumbent Republicans.

Gerrymandering is un-American. It takes a meaningful vote away from millions of residents every year. Several cases have gone to the Supreme Court recently, but the court last year declared that partisan gerrymandering is a political problem. Ignoring the disenfranchisement of voters, it sent the issue back to the states.

The Illinois Supreme Court has disappointed, too. The Illinois court in 2016 invalidated a bid to change the state constitution, based on petitions signed by 550,000 residents, in a thinly argued, technical decision that safeguarded the powers of the smoke-filled rooms.

That can't be the last word. In Springfield this spring, a coalition of good-government groups—including the Better Government Association—is back in the fight. A BGA-backed bill proposes a nonpartisan commission to draw Illinois' electoral maps.

This is hardly a radical idea. In 21 U.S. states, it's already the law.

The electoral reform bill is considered a long shot. If it doesn't pass, Gov. J.B. Pritzker will represent the state's last, best hope for a fair map after the 2020 census. Pritzker has promised not to sign a gerrymandered map when the new map hits his desk in 2021.

Voters will find out next year if Pritzker will keep that commitment. They should remember what he did if he seeks re-election in 2022.

In the meantime, we'll always have this year's Super Tuesday—one of the most hotly contested election nights in memory.

You know hotly contested elections. They attract good candidates, air issues and get people involved in politics and government. Exactly the sort of effect Illinois' gerrymandered maps are designed to avoid.