How COVID-19 is throwing Illinoisans’ next choices for Congress in doubt

How COVID-19 is throwing Illinoisans’ next choices for Congress in doubt

Because of delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Census Bureau will not have the data for states’ political redistricting until the end of September. Illinois faces problems likely to land any political maps in court.

COVID-19 made the U.S. Census late, which will make Illinois’ political maps late and create lots of uncertainty about who might represent whom from what area in Congress.

The Census Bureau will not have redistricting data available for states until the end of September, and that could be a problem for Illinois. That is because the Illinois Constitution has a tight set of deadlines for drawing the state legislative map – the first deadline for the General Assembly to pass a map is June 30, and the final deadline is Oct. 5 for a backup commission to draw the map.

The congressional remap does not have any strict deadlines, but candidates for U.S. representative do: they must file petitions signed by voters in their districts by December. That will be tough, because they will have no idea what the districts look like, especially because Illinois is expected to lose a congressional seat this year.

Redistricting process for state legislative seats

Democrats in the Illinois General Assembly might try to find a way to pass a map without using the census data. Waiting until late September for the data would mean missing the June 30 deadline for a map passed by the General Assembly. The next step when there are no legislative maps would be a bipartisan commission made up of four Democrats and four Republicans, but the deadline for that commission is Aug. 10, again too early for the actual Census data.

The Illinois Constitution next provides for the selection of a tiebreaker if the bipartisan commission fails to produce a map, or if no map can receive five votes. The Illinois Supreme Court would submit the name of one Republican and one Democrat, and the Secretary of State randomly draws one of those names, giving the winning side free rein to draw maps in their favor.

That would mean that despite holding a superminority in the Illinois House and Senate, Republicans could have a 50-50 shot at drawing the legislative maps. Even then, the deadline for the tiebreaker commission to draw a map is Oct. 5, giving little time to incorporate the final census data into a map that meets all the legal requirements.

If estimates other than the official census data were used, any map that Democrats draw could be vulnerable to legal challenges. Maps for state legislative districts in Illinois are required to be compact, contiguous and substantially equal in population. They also must allow racial or language minority communities to influence the election of their preferred candidates where possible, even if that district would not be required by the federal Voting Rights Act. The requirements that districts be substantially equal in population and for racial or language minorities to be able to elect their preferred candidate would pose a problem to any map drawn without the census data. No one can be sure how the official data will differ from any alternate estimates that might be used.

Redistricting for Illinois congressional seats

Illinois’ congressional maps have no deadline similar to state legislative maps, but they have stricter population requirements: each district must be as nearly equal as practicable, according to U.S. Supreme Court precedent. That means it is practically impossible to pass an acceptable map for congressional districts without using the official census data. Illinois is expected to lose a seat in the U.S. House, and aspiring House candidates cannot know what the districts will look like until after the final maps are drawn. Because the numbers will not be available until the end of September, they will be scrambling to gather the required signatures to meet the Nov. 29 filing deadline under the current election code.

State legislative districts have not been held to the same strict standards as congressional districts, however, and a map drawn using other estimates could conceivably fall within the bounds of the constitution. But that is impossible to know until the districts are compared using the official census numbers.

If litigation follows Illinois’ redistricting process, and courts determine the maps do not pass constitutional muster, they could send them back to the legislature with specific orders, as was done in Illinois in 1982 when the maps were deemed to discriminate against racial minorities. In some cases where courts threw out unconstitutional maps, those courts drew the maps themselves, as was done in the case of the Pennsylvania congressional map in 2018.

As it now stands, it is uncertain what Illinois will do without the official data. Gov. J.B. Pritzker has repeatedly promised to veto any partisan map, but he has said, “We’re looking at” using available population estimates to guide the drawing process ahead of the release of new census data.

Whatever the case, without having the official numbers available in time to meet constitutional deadlines, Illinois’ remapping appears to be headed for legal challenges.

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