The U.S. Supreme Court is taking up the issue of legislative redistricting, which might seem interesting only to policy wonks and editorial boards. But hear us out: The decision could have a big impact on Illinois — and after what we’ve seen this session in Springfield, we hope it does.
We live in a state where gerrymandering is a time-honored political tradition, evidenced by truly bizarre state House and Senate district lines. Many, especially in the Chicago area, resemble abstract artworks with boundaries turning and twisting to accommodate communities, neighborhoods and blocks.
It looks like a mess, but there are reasons behind the chaos. The state Legislature determines the borders, pending gubernatorial approval, which means whatever political party is in control rewrites the map. By using data on voter turnout and who won, legislators can move boundaries to benefit their party.
For Illinois Democrats, and especially longtime House Speaker Michael Madigan, the structure helps retain incredible power and majority legislative control. Because fewer Republican residents translate into fewer Republicans running for office, the result is some districts are almost untouchable, making for nearly guaranteed wins and often pointless general election contests.
Of course, this is not unique to Illinois or the Democratic Party. There’s what’s known as the “snake by the lake,” the nickname for Ohio’s Ninth Congressional District from the Michigan border to Cleveland hugging Lake Erie. In fact, the word “gerrymandering” dates all the way to 1812, referencing an oddly shaped district drawn by Massachusetts’ governor at the time, Elbridge Gerry.
Across the country, it is a politically-charged procedure repeating every 10 years as new census data comes out.
If it seems like such a rigged system, you’re right. At minimum, it’s undemocratic. At worst, it’s biased and stifles opposing views. Gridlock takes hold. Career politicians take root.
Have a community that votes reliably for our candidates? Shift the line a few miles to include them and shave the part where support isn’t so strong.
Got a district with a lot of support for the other party? Divide it into multiple districts and dilute their toehold.
Fast-forward to today and the Supreme Court case to be taken up in the fall. It involves Wisconsin, where the GOP-controlled Legislature reconfigured maps to ensure majority in the Assembly and congressional delegation. To critics, the arrangement means elected officials are essentially limiting the say of those whose political beliefs differ from theirs, testing the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
This is a murky legal area, and the Supreme Court has resisted creating limits on how legislative districts are figured.
However, a required change from the high court may be the only way deeply entrenched Illinois politicians will reform the election process. Last year, the state Supreme Court rejected a ballot proposal to let voters change the system. Other calls for reform have stalled, in part, because any changes would have to be approved by the very lawmakers who benefit from the system.
GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner has confronted this same roadblock as he’s pushed for term limits, another cause of endless dysfunction in Springfield.
Short of a Supreme Court mandate, an equitable solution to unfair legislative districts is to have maps drawn by an independent commission or based solely on census data. Diluting voter representation causes irreparable harm and is directly tied to the deep political divisions that make even passing a budget a major hurdle in our state. A larger array of political ideas and a more accurate voice of the people in decision-making is always better.
We’ll be watching the Supreme Court case closely.