How to stop gerrymandering in Illinois
Illinois can draw from other states’ experiences to solve its own gerrymandering problem. One solid solution is as close as Michigan.
Since the last redistricting cycle after the 2010 census, many states have implemented redistricting reforms that are only now being used in the 2020 remap cycle, to varying results. Illinois should look to these states’ experience when considering how to structure its own redistricting processes.
Illinois currently puts legislators in charge of drawing their own districts, with the predictable result that it allows them to choose the voters they want instead of voters choosing the representatives they want.
Other states are experimenting with ways to take redistricting out of the hands of the legislators who stand to benefit from gerrymandered districts. For example, some states have given redistricting commissions primary responsibility for drawing legislative and congressional districts, while others have put commissions in an advisory role, opting to maintain power in the legislature. Some states have kept legislators at the center of the process but mandated bipartisanship in selecting a redistricting plan. Others have barred political leaders from the process entirely. Some have given legislative leaders a say in appointing a redistricting commission while preventing legislators themselves from serving on them. Results have varied, but the states best ranked for competitiveness and partisan fairness in their final district maps are generally those which do the most to separate the process from legislators and political leaders.
But any of the reforms would do a better job combating gerrymandering than the system Illinois currently uses.
Illinois’ gerrymandered maps
Despite efforts from citizens and activist organizations, Illinois has kept the same redistricting practice in place since the current Illinois Constitution was adopted in 1970. And after examining the results, it is clear the state’s redistricting plans, both legislative and congressional, have seen extensive gerrymandering. For example, Illinois lost a congressional district as a result of the shift of population recorded in the 2020 census. Even so, Democrats gained one favorable district while Republicans lost two districts. The state’s two competitive districts from the past cycle have diminished to only one competitive district in the state under the current map.
The Princeton Gerrymandering Project has issued report cards for many of the state maps across the country. These report cards grade maps based on partisan advantage, competitiveness, and geographic integrity, or measures of compactness and whether the districts unnecessarily split county units. Illinois’ congressional map received an “F” in all three categories. The state Senate map, while still receiving an overall failing grade, performed marginally better, receiving a “C” in competitiveness. The final House map performed much better, according to the project’s measures, receiving top grades in partisan fairness while still lagging in competitiveness and geographic features. That earned the House maps an overall grade of “B.”
Boiling down such a complex subject as the quality of district maps is certainly more of an art than a science, and any such rankings will have their own idiosyncrasies. They do demonstrate an underlying truth: allowing Illinois politicians to control the process gives voters less power in the voting booth.
From 2012-2020, nearly half of Illinois House races went uncontested. In 2020, the same was true of the Illinois Senate races. Since the adoption of the current state constitution in 1970, the control of the redistricting process has strongly correlated with party control of the General Assembly. For instance, the one time Republicans controlled the redistricting cycle in 1990 was the only time in the past 40 years Republicans were able to win both chambers of the General Assembly.
Illinois’ system for state legislative districts in particular discourages compromise because of the possibility of a winner-take-all result in the backup commission that draws the map when there is legislative deadlock. Other states, especially those that have turned to independent redistricting commissions, appear to have fared better in both partisan fairness and competition. Illinois can and should learn from where they have gone right and where they have gone wrong.
Evaluating redistricting reforms
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 15 states have implemented redistricting commissions to draw their 2020 legislative districts and five more require advisory commissions to draft legislative plans while giving state legislatures the final say. Ten states have done the same for congressional districts, while four require advisory commissions to draft congressional district plans while the legislature has the last word on the final redistricting plans. Ohio requires significant bipartisan support or else the plan is sent to a bipartisan redistricting commission, and if that plan does not receive bipartisan support, it only lasts for two election cycles instead of the entire 10-year period.
Of the six states that have implemented congressional redistricting reform in the past census cycle, five states have seen an increase in the number of competitive congressional districts, as measured by theFiveThirtyEight redistricting tracker. Those states are Colorado, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio and New York.
Three of the four states that received overall “A’s” for their congressional district maps by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project – Arizona, Colorado and Michigan – put redistricting commissions in charge of their processes. Four of the seven states to grade a “B” or higher overall for legislative maps from both chambers, Michigan, New Mexico, Utah and Virginia, were states that required maps to be drawn by bipartisan or independent redistricting commissions in at least an advisory capacity. Of the eight states with maps that received a failing overall grade by the project, only two had any sort of redistricting commission attached to the plan: New York in which the commission only had an advisory capacity, and Ohio, where commissioners are appointed by elected officials, including in part by legislative leaders.
Even in this case, New York’s advisory commission may yet prevent politician gerrymandering in the state, though not without litigation. In New York, an independent commission is required to present a map to the legislature. If the legislature rejects the plan, the commission must present a second plan for the legislature to approve. If the legislature rejects that plan, they may amend the plan within the limits of federal law and the state and federal constitutions. When the commission, made up of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, was unable to agree on a plan, the legislature took over and passed plans of their own that heavily favored the majority Democratic Party. One of these maps was the congressional plan that received a failing grade from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.
This map was challenged in court, and because the legislature did not follow the procedure spelled out in the state constitution, both the congressional and legislative maps were thrown out as unconstitutional by the state’s highest court. The decision instructed the lower court to adopt constitutional maps.
A similar scenario played out in Ohio. Republicans on the redistricting commission drew maps that heavily favored their own party at the expense of Democratic voters. The maps would only be valid for four years because the commission was unable to get the bipartisan support required for a full, 10-year map. Even then, an Ohio Supreme Court decision struck these maps down because they gamed the methodology by calculating statewide voter preference in favor of Republicans and because they outsourced the map drawing to the legislative caucuses instead of to the commission as a whole. This litigation illustrates the importance of constitutionally required redistricting criteria as a backstop to a commission process, but also the weakness of commissions that give lawmakers influence in drawing their districts.
By contrast, Michigan selects a redistricting commission randomly from a pool of Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated members of the public who cannot be elected officials, candidates for office, lobbyists, employees of the legislatures, officers of a political party or closely related to any of the same. The result is for the 2020 cycle Michigan received some of the highest grades for each of its maps from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, particularly in the category of partisan fairness. Its congressional map has three competitive districts out of 13, which is the highest proportion of competitive districts for a state with five or more congressional districts as determined by FiveThirtyEight. Michigan was also one of the few states to gain a competitive district during the past redistricting cycle, no doubt in part because of Michigan’s redistricting reform.
The reforms that appear to have had the most initial success in introducing the most competition in state legislative and congressional races are the reforms that distance the legislature, and in fact all politicians, from the redistricting process. Illinois should look to these states’ experiences in reforming its own redistricting process.
Illinois should especially look at Michigan. Michigan’s independent redistricting commission has produced one of the most competitive maps in the country by randomly selecting commissioners from a pool of members of the major parties as well as independents. By further barring politicians from serving on the commission as well as their employees, lobbyists or other closely related individuals, the commission can minimize the incentive to gerrymander for partisan advantage.
A popular proposal to put an independent redistricting commission, such as Michigan’s, in charge of drawing Illinois district lines gained enough signatures through a citizen initiative to be placed on the ballot in 2016. That ballot question was rejected by the Illinois Supreme Court as unconstitutional after a lawsuit was filed by a Com-Ed lobbyist with ties to former House Speaker Mike Madigan. The court ruled on a single narrow issue regarding the amendment, leaving open the potential for a similar proposal.
But the only sure way to implement redistricting reform is for the General Assembly to pass the amendment. Until that happens, gerrymandering will continue to be part of Illinois’ culture of corruption.