Jim Dey: War on gerrymandering raging ever louder

Jim Dey: War on gerrymandering raging ever louder

Legal and political momentum challenging the political legitimacy of legislative gerrymandering continues to grow in states across the country, even in Illinois.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court this week struck down the state's congressional districts as constitutionally imbalanced and ordered they be redrawn by Feb. 9. If the governor and legislators can't agree on a map, the justices said they'll draw it themselves.

Further, the court based its 4-3 ruling on the state's constitution, so its decision is final.

Later this year, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a challenge to gerrymandering from Wisconsin, where, like in Pennsylvania, Democrats challenged a Republican-drawn map, this one for the state Legislature.

Finally, in Illinois, the home of at least two recent setbacks in the campaign to outlaw gerrymandering, CHANGE Illinois is collecting questionnaires submitted to Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates.

So far, the responses of four Democratic candidates — Chris Kennedy, J.B. Pritzker, Daniel Biss and Robert Daiber — show everything from passionate to tepid support for reforming the state and federal legislative district drawing process in a nonpartisan manner.

The Pennsylvania development, however, is the biggest step forward in outlawing a process by which the majority party drawing the maps manipulates political boundary lines to guarantee itself an advantage.

That's because the Pennsylvania court directed the elected officials drawing the congressional district maps to abide by certain conditions.

The districts must be:

— Composed of "compact and contiguous territory."

— As nearly equal in population as "practicable."

— Drawn in a way that does "not divide any county, city, incorporated town, borough, township or ward, except where necessary to ensure equality of population."

The Pennsylvania court's solution to the problem is far simpler than that being proposed to the U.S. Supreme Court in the Wisconsin case.

In that litigation, the high court is being urged to adopt a complicated mathematical formula — the so-called "efficiency gap" — that seeks to treat the election process of candidates from various districts throughout the states as somewhat akin to an at-large statewide election.

Ironically, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision striking down congressional districts as a violation of the state's constitution comes shortly after a federal court found the districts there acceptable under the U.S. Constitution.

The federal court ruled, essentially, that the drawing of legislative districts is a political process in which the courts have no jurisdiction.

While lawyers are arguing the issue in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Maryland and North Carolina, gubernatorial candidates in Illinois are invoking the issue to appeal to voters.

Illinois is scheduled to redraw its state and federal legislative districts following the 2021 census, and a number of reform groups are pushing either for the Illinois General Assembly to change the rules surrounding redistricting or for the issue to be addressed in a proposed state constitutional amendment on which the public would vote.

However, the principal opposition comes from Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, who has used his map-drawing power to manipulate House and Senate district boundary lines in a way that gives his party a permanent majority.

Of the four Democrats who responded to the CHANGE Illinois questionnaire, two were passionate on the subject (Kennedy and Biss), one was tepid (Pritzker) and the fourth (Daiber) tried to have it both ways.

Biss, a state senator from Evanston, described gerrymandering as a "violation of basic democratic principles, preventing competitive elections, manipulating outcomes and inhibiting representation of diverse communities."

He said he would support either "legislative or constitutional reforms." Biss said he favors replacing the process by which legislators draw their own maps with "an independent redistricting commission to create fair, competitive legislative districts."

The response from Kennedy, a Chicago businessman, was similarly strong. He said Illinois "desperately" needs to end the practice of gerrymandering because it's "bad for our democracy."

"A growing number of politicians run unopposed, voters feel like their voices don't count and the hyper-polarization and gridlock drags on in Springfield," he said, expressing support for a constitutional amendment that would create a nonpartisan commission to draw legislative maps.

Answering mostly without elaboration, Prizter, also a Chicago businessman, said he favors the same reforms as Kennedy and Biss, including the establishment of a nonpartisan commission to draw the maps. He said the commission members "should represent the gender, racial and geographic diversity of the state."

While expressing support for reforming the process, Daiber said he opposes amending the state constitution to establish a bipartisan process and would not advocate redistricting reform if he's elected.

Daiber, a regional superintendent from downstate Madison County, said "we should end gerrymandering for the purpose of protecting incumbents" but otherwise make only "some minor reforms."

"We may not need to change the entire system," he said.

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