De-rigging Redistricting

The Illinois Constitution requires the state to redraw its state legislative and Congressional district boundaries every 10 years, following the national census. This process, known as redistricting, greatly impacts future elections because it determines which voters will pick which representatives.

Ideally, districts will be drawn to maximize competitiveness, foster active political discussion and reflect the uniqueness of communities.

But practice hasn't live up to the ideal. Indeed, many have described redistricting as the process by which elected officials choose their constituents. In the hands of a skilled mapmaker, for example, districts can be drawn to favor one political party, thus allowing them to maintain control of the district and its representation in upcoming elections. Districts also can be drawn to protect incumbents from likely challengers, or crafted so that two incumbents are put in the same district and forced to either drop out or run against each other.

The redistricting process outlined by the Illinois Constitution calls for the General Assembly to draw the state's legislative district boundaries. If legislators fail to reach agreement, then a Legislative Redistricting Commission is convened, with 8 members dived evenly between Republicans and Democrats. If that, too, fails, a "tiebreaker" of sorts goes into effect -- and one new member of the Commission, either a Republican or a Democrat, is chosen at random and gets the final say on what Illinois' districts will be for the next 10 years.

In each of the last three remaps, not only has the legislative process failed, but the 8-member Commission also failed, so the tie-breaker delivered control of the process into one party's hands. In each instance, the party that won the tiebreaker created districts which greatly favored their party's candidates, giving them an incalculable advantage in elections for the Illinois House and Senate for the ensuing decade.

There has been broad acknowledgement that Illinois' redistricting process leaves much to be desired. While it seems all would agree that Illinois needs a system which ensures all residents receive fair and equal representation, there is not a consensus on how to redesign the current system or even over whether changes need to be focused on the Constitution or on practices within the legislature. Many, particularly Democrats, are hopeful that the legislature will write a map in 2011 without convening a Commission, despite the odds.

The Illinois Senate has formed a Redistricting Committee, which is scheduled to hold four meetings this summer to hear testimony on redistricting. The first meeting is tentatively scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday, July 22, at the Thompson Center, 16th floor, in Chicago. Dawn Clark Netsch, Northwestern University law professor and ICPR board member, and Paul Green of Roosevelt University are among those scheduled to testify.

If you're in the Chicago area, we encourage you to attend. Future meetings of the Committee are planned for Peoria (August 19), Carbondale (September 16), and Springfield (October 14); for updates and to confirm times and locations, go here.