Currently, the Illinois legislature handles redrawing its own districts, subject to gubernatorial veto. After the 2010 Census, Democrats had unified control over the process and drew aggressive partisan gerrymanders which allowed them to win veto-proof, three-fifths majorities in both chambers in each of 2012 and 2014.
However, in the case of divided government in which the two parties can’t compromise, Illinois doesn’t send the process to court as many states do. Instead it uses a bipartisan backup commission evenly deadlocked four-to-four between the two parties. Should that commission also fail to come to a compromise, the two parties essentially face a random 50-50 chance of having their preferred person serving as tiebreaker, allowing one party to fully implement its own gerrymander.
This unfair system allowed Republicans to gerrymander the legislature in the 1990s. They subsequently maintained control of the state Senate for an entire decade and even won the state House in the 1994 wave, giving them unified control over state government for two years despite Illinois being a blue state. When the 2000s redistricting cycle took place under divided government once again, Democrats won the tiebreaker choice and implemented their own gerrymander. They have held both chambers ever since 2002.
Guaranteeing one of the parties gets to implement its gerrymander is a deeply flawed institutional arrangement. Democrats currently have the bare minimum of seats needed to override Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto. If that’s the worst Democrats can do even in a Republican wave like 2014, they would have a good chance at maintaining control over the redistricting process after the higher-turnout 2020 presidential cycle, particularly should the currently unpopular Rauner lose re-election in 2018. However, it isn’t impossible that divided government could lead to new Republican gerrymanders.
The recent Independent Maps proposal sought to create an independent legislative redistricting commission via ballot initiative under the state constitution’s language allowing “structural and procedural” changes to the General Assembly. Independent Maps previously sought a redistricting reform ballot initiative in 2014, but a judge also knocked that one off the ballot.
Their revised 2016 measure would have created an 11-member commission and only four members would be appointed by the four legislative majority and minority party leaders. The state auditor would select three people from a random pool to review the selection of the other seven members from a separate random pool of 100 registered voters. At least two members of each party and three independents were required to pass a map. If the commission failed to reach a compromise, the most-senior member of each party on the seven-member state Supreme Court would oversee appointing someone to draw the maps.
However, the state Supreme Court ruled in a party-line four-to-three vote that this year’s measure also violated the state constitution. Although they held that initiatives could alter the redistricting process, the Independent Maps initiative went beyond the scope of “structural and procedural” matters pertaining to the General Assembly. That’s because the measure altered non-legislative offices such as the auditor and state Supreme Court, which were not covered in the relevant section of the state constitution.
This ruling was a big win for longtime Democratic state House Speaker Mike Madigan and a big blow to Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who had strongly backed the initiative. With double the number of necessary signatures, several million in funds already raised, and poll numbers on their side, Independent Maps looked poised to succeed in 2016 if not for this court ruling. The group might yet make a third attempt at reform in 2018 or 2020.
However, Gov. Rauner’s support of this measure hardly comes from a strong commitment to democracy. Rauner has organized a multimillion dollar effort to elect more Republican allies in the legislature after Madigan and Democrats have staunchly opposed his anti-worker agenda. To that end he also vetoed an overwhelmingly popular and bipartisan bill to automatically register eligible voters, fearing it would harm his party’s chances to have more people participating in the electoral process. Rauner and Republicans supported this effort from a purely partisan standpoint.
Even if Republican motivations were impure, that wouldn’t necessarily make the outcome undemocratic if the reform itself were fair—but it isn’t. Even under the current Democratic gerrymander, Gov. Rauner carried 58 percent of state House seats even when he won by just four points, meaning the Republican candidate won excess seats. The reason Republicans didn’t come close to winning 2014 majorities wasn’t just the gerrymander, but because enough Rauner voters resoundingly rejected his party’s legislative candidates. If Republicans actually won the statewide popular vote, they could quite plausibly win majorities.
That district bias is the exact opposite of myriad Republican gerrymanders, where Republicans won the majority of districts even in chambers across states Obama carried, such as Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. If we ranked every Illinois legislative district from bluest to reddest by 2012 presidential vote, the median seat, or the one where half were bluer and half were redder, would have been more Republican than the state itself. Obama won the median state Senate seat by 1.5 percent less than his statewide margin of 16.9 percent and the median state House seats by two points less.
It’s only because Illinois is already such a blue state that this district bias doesn’t functionally help Republicans. Yet Rauner’s modest 2014 victory shows how this map theoretically could easily lead to a Republican majority should they win the legislative popular vote. Their biggest problem is Illinois is simply too blue. Republicans like Rauner required a perfect storm of a despised Democratic incumbent and a low-turnout midterm wave election for just a narrow statewide victory.
So if the current districts don’t have a large median seat bias toward Democrats, but still give them solid majorities because Illinois is so blue to begin with, what might a nonpartisan map look like? This proposal below is from our 2015 series on nonpartisan congressional redistricting. Although the failed Independent Maps initiative did not cover Congress because the state constitution doesn’t allow it, the same general partisan dynamics would affect the 59-member state Senate and 118-member state House.
This nonpartisan map undoes the Democratic congressional gerrymander which had given Democrats 12 of 18 seats in 2012 and 10 seats in 2014. Although Obama won 14 of 18 districts, only a mere five of the 18 are safely Democratic without incumbents because several seats only barely backed the president. Ranking the seats from bluest to reddest, the median two only supported Obama by a paltry 3.4 percent. When Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn won by one point statewide in 2010 he lost 12 of the districts, while Gov. Rauner beat Quinn in 13 of the 18 in 2014 when he won by just under four points.
This map likely would have given Republicans a 10-seat majority for Congress even in the relatively Democratic year of 2012 when it would have likely cost them the 8th, 10th, 11th, and 17th districts. In the 2014 wave Democrats might have even struggled to hold the 5th. Republicans would have likely won majorities despite the statewide electorate casting more votes for Democrats—and geography bias is to blame.
The five safe Democratic seats are all cloistered in Chicago, four of them are majority-minority, and all gave Obama at least 79 percent of the two-party vote. Yet Romney only won more than 60 percent in one seat. Republicans could rely on suburbanites who gave Obama a native-son boost but vote Republican down ballot to frequently win majorities outside of Democratic wave years.
The legislature would be a similar story with nonpartisan districts like this thanks to geography bias. Democrats would be hard-pressed to win majorities outside of exceptionally Democratic years. This outcome is hardly any different functionally than a Republican gerrymander, even if it isn’t intentionally one. Furthermore, the Independent Maps proposal failed to adequately expand minority voting strength.
As shown in the first congressional map, just four of 18 seats are likely to elect a minority member, slightly less than minority voters’ proportion of the electorate. In particular, Latino voters are packed into an “earmuffs” 4th District to guarantee they are a majority of the citizen voting age population after 1990s-era Voting Rights Act (VRA) litigation, but this isn’t actually necessary to elect Latino members today.
The VRA as currently interpreted does not require an alternate configuration, but a state commission could add additional criteria to encourage drawing more minority districts. Florida’s 2010 redistricting reform didn’t create a commission, but it established criteria on diluting minority voting strength that goes beyond the VRA.
That could be used in Illinois to break up the 4th District into the configuration seen above. The more Mexican-American heavy new 4th is still 59 percent Latino among adults while the new 5th is just a 47 percent white plurality and 42 percent Latino, more of whom are Puerto Ricans (and thus citizens). The 1st, 2nd, and 7th stay black majority. Although this new 5th District might not guarantee a Latino candidate wins, Hispanic voters would have significantly more clout in that district than they currently do, without diminishing their effective strength in the 4th. Once again, this principle applies to both Congress and the legislative maps.
The Independent Maps reform would have been an abject failure for partisan fairness and minority voting strength. There are other reforms Illinois could consider instead, most importantly proportional representation (PR). Most democracies around the world use PR, where parties win seats roughly in proportion to the popular vote. That typically allows for more than two dominant parties, but that doesn’t have to be the case when there are myriad ways to achieve PR.
Illinois could combine PR with nonpartisan redistricting to correct for partisan geography bias in a system called mixed-member PR. Voters would cast one vote for their local representative and another vote for a party list. The party list seats are thus assigned to correct for the partisan distortion between the popular vote and the district outcomes, negating any impact of gerrymandering. Germany and New Zealand both use this system and it gives every voter a roughly competitive election for the list seats, ensures partisan proportionality, all while still keeping geographic representation.
This system could also increase representation for racial and ethnic minorities because they would not need to necessarily be a majority in a district to elect their candidate of choice. Parties could be encouraged via internal political pressure or even legal quotas to include minority members or more women on their party lists.
It would simply be a tragedy for Illinois to pass a reform like Independent Maps, with reformers believing their job is finished, only for Illinois to lock in a functional Republican gerrymander in all but name. Current Democratic gerrymandering is wrong and needs to end, but the proposed solution would have simply been worse for the principle of majority rule than the status quo.
Proportional representation is a much more elegant, fairer reform. Illinois should adopt it if it wants to promote partisan fairness, end corrupt incumbent protection, and ensure that voters can participate in competitive elections.
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