Pritzker OKs gerrymandered maps, breaking promise to end partisan games

Pritzker OKs gerrymandered maps, breaking promise to end partisan games

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed Democrats’ partisan legislative and judicial redistricting plans. He had repeatedly promised to veto any maps drawn by state lawmakers for their own benefit.

This decade’s redistricting process in Illinois has been marked by stumbles and self-serving partisanship.

The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the Census Bureau from providing the detailed count of populations needed to accurately apportion districts of equal population, as required by the state and federal constitutions. But the Illinois General Assembly went ahead anyway, drawing predictably partisan maps.

Despite his repeated promises to veto any partisan maps, on June 4 Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed both the gerrymandered legislative and judicial maps lawmakers sent to his desk.

Legislative map

The Illinois Constitution establishes deadlines for the General Assembly to pass a plan for redistricting their own districts. Members must pass a plan by June 30, or the responsibility is delegated to a bipartisan commission made of four Democrats and four Republicans.

If that commission cannot approve a map with five votes by Aug. 10, a tie-breaking ninth member is chosen at random from the names of one Democrat and one Republican by Sept. 5. The expanded commission then has until Oct. 5 to file a redistricting plan approved by five members.

With the complete census numbers delayed until mid-to-late August and the tabulated numbers not available until the end of September, Illinois Democrats are left with a choice: draw the maps in the General Assembly without the complete census data, or let constitutional deadlines pass and send the redistricting responsibility to a bipartisan backup commission, and ultimately to a 50-50 chance of a Republican tiebreaker. The Democrats chose to use incomplete data.

Democrats in the General Assembly revealed their proposed maps after working behind closed doors. According to public hearings held on those maps, in lieu of complete census data Democrats used data from the 2019 American Community Survey. Those estimates are based on surveys of communities over the course of five years.

Statewide census numbers, which have been readily available before the more granular data necessary for legislative redistricting, showed the estimates were off by almost 42,000 Illinoisans. But reform groups argue those thousands of people cannot be incorporated in maps that do not use the census data.

Illinois put a lot of resources into the census numbers,  spending $47.8 million to make sure Illinoisans were counted in the census. Activists argue that by ignoring the up-to-date census numbers in redistricting, those efforts will have been wasted. Also, because Illinois is becoming an increasingly diverse state, overlooking the additional residents counted in the 2020 U.S. Census is likely to disproportionally affect minority communities.

Democrats’ proposed maps also drew criticism for brazen partisanship. Republican incumbents were pitted against each other in three districts in maps proposed by Democratic legislators. These members would be forced to run against each other in primaries or move, unless they want to quit. That would be nothing new: Democrats did the same thing in the last redistricting cycle, and Republicans did the same when they controlled the map-making process.

But after holding public hearings for two days on the proposed maps, Democrats released revised maps that would reconfigure some districts to accommodate concerns of packing incumbents into the same districts. These revised maps were passed in House Bill 2777 and Pritzker signed them into law on June 4.

Reform groups have called for Illinois to ask the courts to waive the deadlines required by the constitution in light of delayed census numbers. Activists point to California and Oregon where the plaintiffs successfully petitioned their own state supreme courts for relief from constitutional deadlines. Michigan’s redistricting commission petitioned Michigan’s supreme court for similar relief.

While Oklahoma has already drawn its maps with estimates, it has committed to redrawing the maps once the full census numbers come in. The California legislature’s petition did not face any significant opposition and received support from both the secretary of state and the redistricting commission. It remains to be seen if these sorts of petitions would go unchallenged in other states.

Congressional maps

Congressional redistricting plans do not have the same constitutional deadlines state legislative redistricting does, and Illinois Democrats have opted to delay any congressional remap until the full census numbers come out. That could have something to do with the fact congressional redistricting is especially strict, requiring districts as close to equal in population as practical, meaning there is virtually no way to draw districts without the official census numbers.

Those numbers would come out just before congressional candidates’ window to circulate nominating petitions begins. That means candidates would have to sit on their petitions until a map is finalized, cutting down on their ability to gain ballot access in the March primaries. Democrats are looking at postponing the primaries until June 2022 to give candidates more time.

Despite the lack of complete census data, the statewide data means Illinois will lose a congressional seat this cycle. No one knows which representative’s district will be eliminated, although Crain’s Chicago Business reported Democratic leaders were seeing a map that could cost Republicans two seats in the U.S. House. The Illinois Congressional Delegation would then have 14 Democrats and three Republicans, rather than the current 13-5 split, diminishing GOP representation even further.

Judicial map

Neither the state nor federal constitution mandates judicial redistricting, although the state constitution requires one district consist of Cook County, and the “remainder of

the State shall be divided by law into four Judicial Districts of substantially equal population, each of which shall be compact and composed of contiguous counties.”

Illinois’ judicial districts have not been redrawn since 1963, but Pritzker signed Senate Bill 642 into law June 4. Democratic lawmakers cited significant changes in population and demographics since 1963 to justify the change.

The new districts are expected to give Democrats an edge over the current districts in judicial elections, an edge they would likely need to keep a majority on the state supreme court after Justice Thomas Kilbride became the first Illinois Supreme Court justice to lose a retention election. Despite the fact these maps do not have the same strict deadlines the legislative maps do, they were also passed with estimates instead of waiting for the complete census numbers.

Pritzker had during the campaign and repeatedly as governor promised to veto any gerrymandered maps, but he walked back that promise. He fully broke it June 4 when he signed both legislative and judicial redistricting plans into law.

It is likely these maps will end up in court, where they could be sent back to the General Assembly to be redrawn. Or, the Illinois Supreme Court justices might follow the lead of Pennsylvania’s supreme court and redraw the district lines on their own.

Much of this controversy could have been avoided had the Illinois Constitution been amended to take redistricting out of the hands of lawmakers and put in the hands of an independent redistricting commission.

Fifteen states have already established such commissions for legislative redistricting, some with positive results. Illinois needs to do the same if it is ever going to avoid the partisan gerrymandering that has been the hallmark of past redistricting cycles.

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