The word “gerrymander” came into existence after the governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry, in 1812 egregiously redrew political boundaries to favor his own party. The “Gerry” part came from his name. “Mander” derived from the word “salamander”—a slimy amphibian known for living in the mucky bottoms of streams. It was not meant as a compliment.
The fight against gerrymandering of Illinois’ electoral districts made great progress this year. Two-thirds of Illinois’ state senators said they would vote to end it if given the chance, and the measure in the state House had 28 co-sponsors. It was looking as if the votes were there to carry the measure in both houses. And if redistricting reform made it to our fall ballots, opinion polls indicate it would have passed.
Woulda, shoulda, coulda.
Redistricting reform may be popular with the public, but the two politicians who most control the Illinois Legislature—House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton—never let the referendum proposal come to a vote.
This refusal to bend to the public will is political self-preservation, period. It contributes to Illinois’ fiscal malfeasance by making incumbents all but untouchable. It scares away business investment by creating an impression that nothing will ever change. It creates cynicism because politics is corrupted at the most basic level of limiting who can run for office with a chance to win.
In 2016, a citizen initiative failed to get to the ballot after the Illinois Supreme Court shot it down on narrow, technical grounds. But the groups that are pushing for reform—a coalition called the Illinois Redistricting Collaborative, of which the Better Government Association is a member—didn’t give up.
They even got Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker both to pledge to veto any electoral map that smacks of gerrymandered malfeasance. But the anti-gerrymandering effort still ran aground.
It’s enough to leave Jeff Raines, communications and engagement director of pro-reform group Change Illinois, with little cause for optimism. “Some exogenous factor would have to change” to get redistricting on the ballot in time for redistricting after the 2020 census, he says.
But here’s the thing: Some outside factors may be coming. Political and legal conditions are changing. Neighborly pressures are building, too. One jarring disruption: Illinois has lost so many residents since the 2010 census that the state is set to lose two seats in Congress. This will have a knock-on effect that could put the post-2020 Illinois electoral map up for grabs.
That is where the second external factor comes into play: oversight by the federal courts. Four anti-gerrymandering cases are before the U.S. Supreme Court. One each from Wisconsin and Maryland are testing the limits of politically distorted mapmaking. Two cases from Texas seek to redress distortions based on race. Others are coming down the pike. The message from the courts is clear. They’re losing patience with electoral maps designed to deny people equal rights under the law.
Finally, there is pressure from neighboring states. Iowa has fixed its map. Wisconsin is facing a Supreme Court test. A proposal for bipartisan mapmaking in Ohio recently won 75 percent of the votes cast. Pressure is growing in Indiana and Missouri, despite strong opposition.
Illinois politicians have shown gross indifference to peer pressure from well-run states. We didn’t get the nation’s worst-funded pension system and extreme fiscal messes by going along with the crowd. But people are tired of standing out this way, and they’re standing up and demanding change.
What happened this session—what didn’t happen, actually—is a clear defeat. But it need not be the final word. Factors favoring reform are building. Eventually, they’ll break through.