Our View: Independent commission needed to prevent gerrymandering

Few people are more unhappy with those who represent them in government than Illinois residents. Yet, we continue to keep our lawmakers at the state and federal level in power, sometimes for decades. That’s because they are allowed to continue to gerrymander legislative districts designed to keep getting them elected.

The party in power at the House, Senate and governor level — Illinois Democrats — is about to wield that influence to their benefit once again and few citizens are even aware it is happening.

Every 10 years, states redraw their legislative and congressional district maps to align with the most recent decennial census. But this year, the process is complicated because the census data needed to complete those tasks has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, Democrats plan to use the constitutional legislative process to redraw maps, and both the House and Senate Redistricting Committees have presented their schedules for holding public hearings around the state, Capital News Illinois has reported.

That should be disappointing for Illinoisans who should be afforded fair representation.

The Census Bureau has said data needed for congressional redistricting will be available by April 30, CNI reported. But the detailed data needed for state legislative redistricting won’t be available until late September. So, the Democrats say they need to make decisions without all the information needed by deadlines outlined in the state Constitution.

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Some context and an example of the power of gerrymandering is needed. Democrats have control of redistricting congressional and legislative districts, offering them incumbent and party protection. Just look at current legislative maps. Few boundaries follow geographic logic.

Witness the 17th Congressional District map. The 6,900-square-mile district starts in north central Illinois in Rockford, hugs the state’s western border, then turns east into Peoria in central Illinois. The majority of the 17th consistently votes conservative, except for the larger population centers of Rockford and Peoria. For the past eight years and after the last redistricting process, the 17th has been represented by Democrat Cheri Bustos. That’s just one of dozens of examples of Democratic gerrymandering in Illinois.

And this year that Democratic control will grow as the state continues to lose residents. Illinois can expect to lose one, if not two, congressional seats.

Change Illinois, a nonpartisan nonprofit that champions ethics and efficiency in government and elections in Illinois, reports lawmakers are doing too little to engage constituents in the remapping process.

“They need to bolster the website they made by posting all testimony and submitted maps, define what data they are using, define better the regions they are relying on, and give the public the opportunity to engage meaningfully,” says Madeleine Doubek, executive director of Change Illinois. “They need to respond to testimony so the people know if their feedback is being used and how.”

The Democratic-led redistricting is happening as Gov. JB Pritzker, Speaker Emanuel Welch and 37 Senate Democrats have said in recent years that they want independent redistricting. So why isn’t that happening?

Instead, the Democrats are hosting hearings most people don’t know about, during work hours when few are available to attend and making it nearly impossible to find out how to schedule testimony or provide written responses.

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Illinois has 18 congressional seats, 13 held by Democrats and five held by Republicans: Mike Bost of Murphysboro, Rodney Davis of Taylorsville, Mary Miller of Collinsville, Adam Kinginzer of Channahon and Darin LaHood of Peoria. If the state is to lose at least one congressional seat, Democrats are likely to target one of those five Republican-held seats.

Republicans in the General Assembly are making a last-minute, but reasoned, attempt to have the redistricting process led by an independent commission. On March 30, Republicans introduced a bill that would hand over the process of drawing new legislative and congressional district maps to an independent commission that would be required to use Census Bureau data, rather than estimates, to draw the maps.

The bill, introduced as an amendment to Senate Bill 1325, is similar to a proposed constitutional amendment that was introduced in 2019. That proposal, which had 37 cosponsors, died in the 101st General Assembly without a hearing, CNI reported.

“Voters shouldn’t have to rely on politicians who draw maps solely to fulfill their self-serving interests,” said state Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, the bill’s chief sponsor. “Remember, just last year, 18 Democrats in the Illinois Senate signed on to a constitutional amendment supporting an independent mapmaking commission. We’ve taken the language of that constitutional amendment and we’re proposing to do just that by statute.”

The bill calls for the chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court and the most senior member of the court who is from a different political party to appoint a 16-member Independent Redistricting Commission. It would be composed of seven Democrats, seven Republicans and two independents, and no one who has been elected to a state, federal or local government office within the preceding four years would be eligible to serve on the commission.

CNI reported the bill anticipates that the commission will not complete its work by the constitutional June 30 deadline and that an eight-member Legislative Redistricting Commission would also be appointed.

The independent commission would then wait to receive the Legacy Format Summary Redistricting File from the Census Bureau and, within 30 days after that, submit a plan for new state legislative maps to the Legislative Redistricting Commission while submitting its plan for congressional redistricting to the General Assembly, according to CNI.

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Change Illinois recommends subcommittees postpone future meetings until leaders define what data they and the public will use to determine districts. Change Illinois seeks consistent rules, geographies and guidelines be established to ensure the public has ample time to prepare to participate in a process that is transparent and accountable.

“Illinois’ districts belong to the people,” Doubek of Change Illinois said. “They expect an independent and transparent process that values the principle of one person, one vote. We again urge you to meet their clear expectations.”

So, what can Illinois residents do about this situation? One way is to get involved by telling your local state House and Senate members what you think about the matter. Another way is to submit testimony presenting your opinion You can start here with the Senate: bit.ly/ILSenateMap; and here with the House: http://bit.ly/ILHouseMap.

If you are tired of having limited options of candidates for whom you can vote, then action is needed.

Democrats should also seriously consider the logical independent remapping bill the Republicans shared on March 30.

The delays and false promises of change need to stop. Illinois voters deserve nothing less.