Have you ever wandered into the abstract gallery at an art museum?
You know it when you see it – it’s different from everything else you’ve seen. Abstract artists seek to achieve an effect, not to reflect visual or physical reality. Colors and shapes are thrown together with seemingly little rhyme or reason.
How did you react? If you’re like us, it probably was something along the lines of, “What the ... ?”
That was pretty much our reaction to the new congressional district maps proposed by Illinois Democrats. It’s a mishmash of colorful shapes, ripped from geographic reality, ruthlessly designed to cement Democrats’ partisan advantage in the Prairie State.
What the ... ?
The congressional map drawn up by Illinois legislators after the 2010 census already were a problem. How else to explain the 16th District, represented by Republican Adam Kinzinger, who hails from Channahon, which straddles the Will-Grundy county line? From there, the district swings west and north to the Wisconsin line, carefully selecting Republican-leaning voters, neatly but inexplicably bypassing places such as Elgin and Crystal Lake, gobbling up DeKalb and a portion of Rockford, and looking like nothing so much as a grossly misshapen banana.
But lawmakers upped their game after the 2020 census, elevating gerrymandering to a form of abstract art. Yes, the state will lose one U.S. House seat as a result of reapportionment, and we have to deal with that fact. But surely we can do better than this. The New York Times, in an article singling out Illinois, wrote that the state “would be among the most gerrymandered in the country” if the Democratic-controlled General Assembly approves the map. The Times cited two particularly gross examples in our fair state:
* The new 17th District “would stretch in a crescent along the state’s northwestern borders, connecting Rockford in the north to Peoria and the twin cities of Bloomington and Normal, home to Illinois State University. Driving the length of the district without leaving it would cover 332 miles.” The 17th is currently represented by U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, a Democrat who is not running for a sixth term.
* The new 13th District would run from the Illinois suburbs of St. Louis, up to Springfield and east to Champaign and Urbana.
The proposed map violates key principles of fair legislative maps, splitting counties and creating districts that are what the experts call “non-compact.” It’s embarrassing. (And yes, Republicans do it, too. Just ask the good people of Texas and Wisconsin. But two wrongs don’t make a right.)
The current makeup of the state’s U.S. House delegation is 13 Democrats and five Republicans. The best guess is that the proposed map will produce a delegation of 14 Democrats and three members of the GOP, a feat accomplished by pitting Kinzinger against Democratic Rep. Marie Newman of La Grange in the new 3rd District and incumbent Rep. Darin La Hood of Dunlap against fellow Republican Rep. Mary Miller of Oakland in the new 16th.
We’re certain the partisan artists who designed the proposed map are proud of their work. The Princeton Gerrymandering Project was less impressed, giving the Illinois mapping effort an overall grade of F.
There is a solution, of course: maps drawn by an independent, nonpartisan commission.
Over the past decade reform-minded Illinoisans have mounted two serious efforts to fix the redistricting process, only to be thwarted by the Democratic political machine that controls the state. In 2018, a bill proposing to let voters decide by referendum whether to create an independent 16-member commission to draw legislative districts died in the House Rules Committee. In 2016, the Democratic majority on the state supreme court ruled that independent map petitions signed by more than 550,000 voters – nearly twice the required number – was unconstitutional.
Yet we remain convinced that redistricting reform can be accomplished. Exhibit A is Michigan, a diverse Midwestern industrial state much like our own. There, voters in 2018 approved a Voters Not Politicians amendment to the state constitution by a whopping 61% to 39%. The measure created a 13-member commission – four Democrats, four Republicans and five independents – to draw congressional and legislative maps.
It’s time for Illinois to gear up for a decisive battle for fair independent maps. We encourage the leaders of the recent reform efforts to buckle on their armor, saddle their white horses and return the power to choose office holders where it belongs – to the voters.
The independent maps that result don’t have to be artistic masterpieces. They just need to be fair.