In a state where politics is a blood sport, few issues drive more partisan self-interest than legislative redistricting — the process of drawing geographic boundary lines every 10 years for seats in the Illinois General Assembly and U.S. House of Representatives.
That’s why it’s important to keep the June 30 date in mind.
“If no redistricting plan becomes effective by
June 30 ... a Legislative Redistricting Commission shall be constituted not later than July 10. The Commission shall consist of eight members, no more than four of whom shall be members of the same political party,” the Illinois Constitution states.
Redistricting follows the decennial census because populations shift and grow over time and legislative districts are supposed to be equal in size. But unlike previous census years, this year’s June 30 date poses a problem because, owing to coronavirus-related delays, census data will not be complete.
Without the required census numbers, majority Democrats in the Legislature can’t safely draw political maps to favor their party.
But they appear ready to draw highly partisan maps using population estimates instead.
State Sen. Elgie Sims, D-Chicago, argues estimates are required because the General Assembly has a “constitutional obligation” to meet the June 30 deadline.
That is not exactly accurate.
The date Sims cites is not a constitutional obligation, it’s a partisan obligation legislative Democrats have embraced.
As the constitutional excerpt cited above states, if no map is complete by June 30, rules call for a bipartisan eight-member commission to draw the maps. If the eight-member commission — four Democrats and four Republicans — can’t agree on a map, the constitution calls for choosing a ninth member — either a Democrat or a Republican — “by random selection” to break a tie vote.
But Democrats appear ready to reject that option because it opens the redistricting door to Republican participation.
Redistricting using estimates, however, is a risky business, owing to U.S. Supreme Court decisions mandating “one man, one vote” rules and “equal protection” under law.
“The use of bad data is what’s going to drive lawsuits,” said state Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, a redistricting spokesman for his party.
Potential litigation is just one problem. Another is Illinois’ unusually early election schedule that calls for March 2022 primary elections.
Candidates will have to start collecting petition signatures this summer to be ready for a filing period beginning Nov. 22.
If lawsuits are still pending and district boundary lines in doubt, how will candidates know exactly where they will be running?
Christopher Mooney, a University of Illinois-Chicago political scientist, told the Chicago Tribune that he expects a “mess.” For his part, Barickman predicts “chaos.”
One far-out possibility is that because of calendar constraints, 2022 elections might be conducted under flawed maps that used population estimates. That could leave the final question of court-approved legislative districts using census numbers to be revisited for 2024.
The question of how to proceed has divided Republicans from Democrats, but also Democrats from other Democrats.
Locally, state Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana, proposed using estimates while Democratic Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin wants legislators to wait for the census data.
Political self-interest dominates redistricting. The majority party skews the maps to maintain permanent legislative control. At the same time, majority-party legislators try to manipulate the map-drawing process to ensure they will get districts ensuring their re-election against no opposition or token opposition.
Under the current maps, state House and Senate districts have been so skillfully drawn that many voters have little to no choice over which party represents them in Springfield.
They will know more about when or if that could change 70 days from now.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-393-8251.