An Independent Redistricting Commission for Illinois? Yes please!

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It’s no secret that Illinois has a reputation for political corruption and machine politics.  But it’s not just through corruption and bribery that our elected representatives let us down.  When elected officials put their interests, or those of lobbyists, donors, or friends above those of their constituents, we all lose.  Take last month as an example, where we saw a noticeable misalignment between voters and their elected officials: the Illinois House failed to vote on the marriage equality bill, despite it having the support of the Governor, Senate, and over 50% of the population.

There are many reasons why voters’ needs and legislative outcomes are not aligned, such as the existence of laws or practices that suppress voting; roadblocks in the rules of legislative procedure, a lack of public financing or sufficient campaign finance restrictions; and the use of separate party primaries.  But one big reason that our legislators fail us is the fact that gerrymandering is allowed to flourish.

Gerrymandering distorts democracy by allowing legislators to set the boundaries for their districts.  If, as in Illinois, there is one party that controls the House, Senate, and Governor’s mansion, it becomes in the interest of that party to draw the lines to maximize their power.  Democrats might do this by packing Republicans into districts where 80-90% of the district votes for Republican candidates but splitting up Democrats in an “efficient” voting pattern, by, for example, drawing each Democratic district to include 55% of voters that reliably vote for Democratic candidates (and vice versa if Republicans are in control).  In doing so the party in control is able to draw more districts for themselves and less for the other side.

Though it was Democrats that benefited from the redistricting process in Illinois in 2010, across the country it was Republicans that won the gerrymandering war, with one of the most extreme examples being Ohio’s congressional map, where, in 2012 despite Republicans winning only 52% of the vote, they won 75% of the seats.

Whether it is Republicans or Democrats in control, the story is the same across the country: in Democratic controlled states, Democratic congressional candidates won, on average, 56% of the vote but 71% of the seats, and in Republican controlled seats Republican candidates won, on average, 53% of the votes but 72% of the seats.  One doesn’t need a degree in statistics to appreciate that this is simply unbalanced and unfair.

In response to the dangers of partisan control of redistricting, thirteen states now use independent or bipartisan commissions to conduct legislative redistricting.  Independent commissions aren’t a guarantee of a hassle free process, or a guarantee that everyone will be happy with the plans that result (then again, what system could possibly produce a plan to please everyone?), but they sure are a lot better than letting partisans manipulate the process for their own gain.

The most recent example of the adoption of a fully independent commission is California.   In 2010-2011 the California redistricting commission held 34 public hearings across the state, received 20,000 comments in writing, released multiple draft maps and amended them in accordance with public input.  The maps were upheld by the courts, according to political scientists they produced maps with a partisan bias of almost zero (0.0004), and the final plans substantially increased the number of majority minority districts.  These are findings Illinois can only dream of.

Enter the group Yes for Independent Maps and their redistricting amendment proposal. www.independentmaps.org sets out the proposal to introduce an independent redistricting commission to Illinois. In the spirit of advancing transparency and inclusion, the Independent Maps’ team physically and virtually toured around the state in May and June gathering input from all corners.

The language for the amendment is set and the signature gathering process has begun. The Independent Maps’ team needs to gather some 300,000 signatures to get the initiative on the 2014 ballot, and, if all goes to plan, the voters of Illinois will vote to give the keys to drawing state house and senate districts to an independent commission composed of qualified Illinois citizens.  The commission will have to hold public hearings, release draft proposals for comment, and give notice before any votes are taken.  The commission will include an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, and a number of people unaffiliated with either party.  To approve a plan, some members from each of these three groups will have to vote in favor of the plan, ensuring that either party can’t game the system and disadvantage their opponents.

The criteria that the Commission will have to consider when drawing the maps include ensuring that minority voters are able to elect the candidates of their choice, that communities of interest are kept together, and that the Commission doesn’t protect or punish any party or politicians for partisan reasons.

Needless to say, the powerful in Springfield aren’t going to be too happy about the people taking back some power over who their representatives are.  Even some Republican incumbents are going to be unhappy because maybe they like their district filled with 80% supporters.  That’s why groups like the non-partisan Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law are stepping up to support and promote this amendment.  We can’t expect the foxes to guard the henhouses.  In fact, we have to actively vote to stop the foxes being in a position to guard the henhouses.  We should be guarding them. We, the people, should be drawing the districts from which our legislators are elected.

The Chicago Lawyers’ Committee supports independent redistricting and we hope the Yes for Independent Maps’ ballot initiative is successful.  To make that happen, we hope you’ll support independent redistricting too.