Deadlines are serious business. You don’t need to be a journalist to know that.
And one deadline in particular—Dec. 31—was meant to have meaning. That’s the date by which the U.S. Census Bureau was required to tell the states how many residents should live in each congressional district.
From that simple data point, the entire machinery of electoral mapmaking was supposed to jump into motion.
But it didn’t happen this time. COVID-19 delayed the census count. The first batch of numbers won’t arrive until April, with more granular data arriving even later.
If this were the world of our civics textbooks, the delay in data would be a problem. Public-minded officials doing their best to draw fair maps, designed to best represent the will of the voters, would be hard pressed to absorb the late-arriving data and meet the state’s constitutional deadline of providing a map by June 30 this year.
But this is Illinois, one of many states across the country where mapmaking does not work that way because fair representation is not the point of the exercise.
In those states the parties in power use mapmaking, a ritual that plays out once each decade, to protect or even expand their hold on power. In Illinois, the dominant Democratic Party does it; in Wisconsin, the Republicans do.
And the U.S. Supreme Court has bowed out of any effort to address the problem, recently declaring it a political issue that state governments should address.
So, yes, the lack of timely data will make the process more difficult. There may even be discussion of temporary fixes and adjustments that need to be made, by necessity, because of the delay.
But don’t be distracted by such rhetoric. Instead, keep your eyes on what really matters. The state’s three key public officials in the mapmaking process—new House Speaker Chris Welch, Senate President Don Harmon and Gov. J.B. Pritzker—all say they oppose gerrymandered maps. What they do over the next several months will tell us if they really mean it.
If Pritzker, Harmon and Welch are serious, they’ll need to change a political system designed to thwart their fair-maps intentions.
Illinois is a “trifecta state,” where one party controls both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office, too. For Democratic incumbents, this has turned the mapmaking process into a Rube Goldberg perpetual re-election machine.
Just how badly gerrymandered are Illinois’ maps? In the elections since the 2011 maps were drawn, more than 95 percent of incumbents seeking re-election were returned to office. From 2012 to 2016, more than half the incumbents in the General Assembly faced no general election contest at all.
It does not need to be this way. When my organization, the Better Government Association, commissioned a pair of fair maps, we pointed the way toward what can happen if maps are not drawn by partisans. Placed side by side with the current ones, the BGA maps showed that fair-mapping practices produced more compact, geographically sensible boundaries. The districts were more competitive, and they safeguarded representation for minorities and other communities of interest.
The biggest change was that incumbency was no longer protected: Voters would choose their representatives, not the other way around under the current system.
There still is hope for the 2021 maps. The delays in census data heightens the urgency for Welch, Harmon and Pritzker to put weight behind their fair-mapping words.
Their best way forward would be to pass and sign a bill to establish an independent public commission to draw the maps.
If they won’t go as far as they should, they could at least make progress by committing to meaningful public hearings, with follow-up hearings after the maps are drawn, so the public can hold the mapmakers responsible for their work.
The legislative leaders should commit that districts will be drawn without regard to where incumbents live. While such an idea may be viewed by old Springfield hands as a non-starter, it would be a most effective tool in slaying the incumbents-first approach that has distorted past maps.
The governor, for his part, could say he will consider signing a map only if it was drawn according to those two minimum standards.