Picking the Pickers: Redistricting Update

Experts who testified at a Senate Redistricting Committee meeting this week didn’t paint a pretty picture about Illinois’ current redistricting process.

In fact, they described the process that produces new legislative district maps every 10 years as downright awful.

In Illinois, the redistricting process is dominated by lawmakers: The state Constitution gives the entire General Assembly the first crack at drawing the boundaries for state legislative districts. But if lawmakers can’t reach an agreement, the Republican and Democratic leaders in each chamber get to appoint one citizen and one lawmaker, each, to a special eight-member Legislative Redistricting Commission. If that panel can’t agree on a map, either, the redistricting process gets thrown into the hands of one randomly chosen ninth member of the commission.

During each redistricting process over the last three decades, lawmakers have butted heads over the map – ultimately going to the “tiebreaker round,” and throwing the process into the hands of one party.

As the Daily Herald editorial board notes today, experts have acknowledged allowing one party to control the state’s map is a bad way to operate. Redistricting greatly impacts future elections because it determines which residents can vote for which representatives. Left in the hands of one party, redistricting can – and has – produced districts that greatly favor candidates of that party.

Now, in advance of the 2011 redistricting process that will follow next year’s Census, the Illinois Senate is hosting once-a-month committee hearings around the state about redistricting.

Former State Senator and Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch, drawing from her experience as a delegate to the 1970 Constitutional Convention that produced the current redistricting process, explained that the tiebreaker option was supposed to be, in essence, the “nuclear option.” The thought of winner-take-all was supposed to encourage political parties to work together, for fear that they would lose the tiebreaker. There was also some hope among the delegates that the ninth member would be a "negotiator" or moderating influence, not someone who would side with one party against the other.

But, that wasn’t the case in 1981, nor 1991, nor 2001. And there’s no reason to think 2011 will be any different – unless the system is changed.

Roosevelt University Political Science Professor Paul Green said that the tiebreaker provision has made redistricting a partisan answer to a question that is not supposed to be partisan.

Atlhough Green and Netsch were asked to testify about the history of redistricting in Illinois, both said that the system must be changed to allow people who aren’t lawmakers or partisan agents to have a role in the process.

Green also noted what amounts to the elephant in the redistricting committee room: Although many members of the General Assembly have voiced concerns about the current redistricting process, few – if any – are willing to be “political martyrs,” and sacrifice their own chance to be re-elected for the sake of reform.

That’s part of what makes redistricting reform in Illinois so challenging. Lawmakers historically have demonstrated reluctance to change the status quo. Even though – as Green aptly pointed out – that redistricting is largely to blame for Illinois’ woefully noncompetitive state legislative elections.

Illinois needs a better redistricting system. We need a system that ensures the districts that are created just two years from now foster active political discussion and elect lawmakers that are responsive to their voters. We need a system that ensures that the 177 members of the General Assembly look as much like the other 13 million residents of Illinois as possible.

Several plans to ameliorate the current system have already been drafted – including proposals from several lawmakers, the Illinois Reform Commission, and the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.

We hope the Illinois General Assembly gives these plans serious consideration, and creates a new process that is transparent and reflects the desires of the public. ICPR supports the principles recently adopted by Americans for Redistricting Reform.

The Senate Redistricting Committee is scheduled to next meet on Aug. 18 in Springfield. An audio recording of the hearings will be made available through the General Assembly's website.