Redistricting – the once-in-a-decade process of drawing state legislative and congressional district boundaries -- has a substantial impact on our democracy. How Illinois residents are grouped into districts can have a profound effect on who will represent the district, and what those elected officials will do.
Districts can be drawn to give one political party a distinct voting advantage over others. Also, candidates or incumbents can be cut out of or crowded into a district, either to force candidates out of office or to force specific candidates to compete against each other. Racial and ethnic communities can be split across multiple districts, so as to dilute their voting strength, or they may be packed into one district, thereby limiting the number of elected officials they can select.
Controlling the redistricting process is important to the political parties because it allows them to create districts that advantage their candidates and increase the likelihood that they will win more offices.
ICPR believes the state's last three redistricting cycles demonstrate the need to substantially alter the process by which district maps are created. Simply put, the public is not best served by a process that grants one political party the sole authority to draw maps, and with no requirement that the party listen to the public's concerns. The process by which Illinois’ districts are drawn must be substantially altered to ensure redistricting protects the public’s interest, not a political party’s interest.
Under Illinois’ current redistricting process, which is established in the state Constitution, the General Assembly is given the first opportunity to draw Legislative and Representative district maps. Both the House and the Senate are required to pass the plan by a simple majority vote, after which the plan is sent to the governor’s desk for approval (or veto).
However, if a redistricting plan is not created by July 10, in the year following the Census (such as 2011), then the four legislative leaders must appoint two members each (one lawmaker from his or her chamber, and one member of the general public) to a special redistricting commission. That eight-member panel is then charged with producing a map that five members support. If the commission members fail to agree on a map, then the Illinois Secretary of State selects a ninth member – chosen at random from two names submitted by the state Supreme Court.
In each of the state's last three redistricting cycles, the eight-member commission has failed to reach an agreement on district maps, thereby mandating the "tiebreaker" route by adding a ninth member. As a result, the political party of that selected-at-random ninth member has single-handedly drawn the state legislative district lines for the next 10 years.
Problems with this process:
Partisan: The General Assembly has a poor history of conducting redistricting in a bi-partisan manner. During each of the last three redistricting processes (1981, 1991 and 2001), lawmakers have failed to reach an agreement on the district maps, thus necessitating the creation of the commission and later, the selection of a ninth member.
As such, in each of the last three redistricting years, one political party has single-handedly been able to draw the entire state’s district maps. Party leaders have used redistricting to blatantly gerrymander districts to favor one political party. Because redistricting is a once-in-a-decade process, political parties are often able to dominate these manufactured "safe" districts for 10 years.
Delegates to the 1970 Constitutional Convention have stated that the “tiebreaker” option – the addition of a ninth member, selected by random – was intended to be the “nuclear” option that neither political party would want to chance. Delegates believed that the threat of all-or-nothing would encourage legislative leaders to resolve redistricting in a bi-partisan manner, so that they would not risk losing a voice in the process.
Controlled by lawmakers: Under the current process, legislative leaders and lawmakers control the process by which the districts they represent are constructed. This creates a situation whereby lawmakers are, in some respects, selecting the citizens they will represent. Illinois lawmakers repeatedly have used redistricting as a way to preserve their own interests, rather than those of the public.
No transparency: The current process denies Illinois residents from having a voice in the redistricting process, as there is no opportunity for public hearings or their participation in other ways. In past decades, partisan leaders have constructed the state’s maps in secret, so much that the public only learns of the maps after they’ve been created.
The Internet and Web-based software make it both possible and feasible to significantly increase transparency around the redistricting process – and even allow the public to participate in every aspect of the process.
Additionally, allowing lawmakers to single-handedly control the redistricting process means there is little opportunity for oversight from individuals whose careers and livelihoods are not reliant on legislative elections.
Outdated and poorly enforced criteria: The criteria that the Illinois Constitution lists are nebulous, incomplete, and not necessarily enforced. Notably, the listed criteria do not include the need to respect minority communities. Furthermore, there is no requirement calling for the preservation of communities of interest, such as neighborhoods or municipalities, whenever possible.
While lawmakers have adhered to the requirements that districts be of equal population and contiguous, they have ignored the “compact” standard. A quick glance at Illinois’ existing map reveals many rambling boundaries. Varying population densities (between rural and urban areas, for example) necessitate some differences in district size, but not to the extent of our recent maps.