Jim Dey: Changing map drawing

Jim Dey: Changing map drawing

The day was Tuesday, the subject was the constitutionality of political gerrymandering, the location was the U.S. Supreme Court and the arguments were fierce. Sometimes they went beyond the bounds of law to include an emotional plea for the court to step in.

"You are the only institution in the United States that can solve this problem," Paul Smith, a lawyer representing Wisconsin Democrats, told the court's nine justices.

Actually, that's true only in the sense of a nationwide, one-size-fits-all solution.

But that didn't stop former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger from echoing the same theme as Smith while discussing the issue after oral arguments concluded.

"We are here today to ask the Supreme Court to fix something that the politicians will never do. As Einstein said, those who created the problem will not be able to fix it," he said.

That's not true either, as Schwarzenegger well knows. While he was governor, California abandoned the partisan process by which majority legislators drew their House and Senate state legislative maps, replacing it with a bipartisan commission to do the traditionally political job.

Indeed, there are a number of states across the country, including Iowa and Arizona, that have abandoned the partisan process whereby majority party members redraw House and Senate maps to accommodate population changes, but do so in a way that manipulates district boundary lines to give their party an electoral advantage.

It remains to be seen just how the U.S. Supreme Court will resolve the gerrymandering lawsuit that Wisconsin Democrats have filed against Wisconsin Republicans. A decision — probably 5-4, either way it goes — won't be forthcoming until next year.

But the Wisconsin case, where Republicans used their map-drawing powerto limit Democratic success in state legislative elections, is not expected to have any impact on Illinois, where legislative Democrats used their map-drawing authority to inhibit GOP success.

That's because the so-called "efficiency gap" — the percentage difference between political party votes cast statewide and individual seats won — in Wisconsin exceeds the efficiency gap in Illinois. In other words, Democrats argued that Wisconsin Republicans gerrymandered too much to be constitutionally acceptable while, according to the standard they embrace, Democrats gerrymandered just enough in Illinois to rack up legally acceptable and substantial majorities in both houses of the Illinois General Assembly.

That, of course, doesn't mean that in states like Illinois, there are not democratic means of changing to a more balanced approach that would enhance prospects for more competitive elections that give voters more choices.

Through pressure on elected officials and citizens initiatives to change the state Constitution, an aroused citizenry can persuade lawmakers to act.

Although they face a borderline impossible task, individuals affiliated with CHANGEIllinois last week announced they are "taking a series of steps to end gerrymandering in the Land of Lincoln."

John Sirek, chairman of CHANGEIllinois, said the organization is "crafting a gerrymandering survey to send to all candidates running to be our next governor."

"We're going to work together to get all the gubernatorial candidates on the record about their stance on gerrymandering," he said.

Sirek said gerrymandering foes also "need to build momentum to create pressure in the General Assembly to pass reform" and they plan to "advocate for a substantive constitutional amendment to be placed on the ballot" that would change the manner in which new district boundary lines become law.

The question, of course, is whether their combined efforts to advance political change would have even the slightest impact on Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, who has the authority to stop legislation he doesn't like by refusing to allow it to be put to a vote.

Those who follow the issue may recall that CHANGEIllinois last year promoted a citizen initiative effort in which millions of signatures of registered voters were collected as a means of placing a proposed constitutional amendment on the November 2016 ballot.

Democrats used their 4-3 Illinois Supreme Court majority to strike the measure from the ballot, giving Madigan the reprieve he expected and appreciated.

At the same time, however, legislators have caught enough heat from constituents on the gerrymandering issue to force the illusion of action.

That's why Speaker Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton allowed their members to vote on the issue. Using a duplicitous practice called "criss-cross," Madigan and Cullerton each put different bills on the issue to a vote in the House and Senate.

The House passed one bill, and the Senate passed another. But the two different bills were never sent to a joint House/Senate conference committee to work out their differences.

So nothing happened, except that legislators were allowed to return home to their constituents and tell them they not only favor redistricting reform but voted for it.

During oral arguments last week, Justice Sam Alito described gerrymandering as "distasteful," a characterization its practitioners reject. They see it as a time-honored practice.

But Alito's point was that while gerrymandering may be hard-ball politics, it's not necessarily barred by the U.S. Constitution, as gerrymandering for racial reasons is.

Further, if the court finds a constitutional problem, as it may, it has an obligation to come up with a solution that fixes the problem, not makes it worse.

But it's, by no means, a purely legal question. Speaker Madigan is pushing his Democrats to win back the governor's mansion next year, thereby eliminating both his hated political rival, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, and making his planned legislative gerrymander in 2022 easier.

Wisconsin Democrats could do the same by winning that state's governorship next year.

Elections still count a lot.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

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SteveBrown wrote on October 08, 2017 at 11:10 am

Another generally fact free rant. Jim always forgets to tell readers that IL remaps are actually controlled by the federal Voting Rights Act.The WI case looks at totally different issues. There is no recognition that last petiion driven effort rejected by the Supreme Court paid ony token lip servce to the Voting Rights Act.

Happy to update --- again.    

Editors ask I tell al that Steve Brown is an independent,free market think tank that works on communications issues with a range of folks including Mike Madigan . Done.