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Is Illinois Ready for Redistricting Reform?

It has widespread support, but failed last year in the Supreme Court. But its real value may be only as a trade chip.

The last two attempts to get independent redistricting died in the courts; maybe the third time’s the charm.   Photo: Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune

It’s still one of the few remaining items on Bruce Rauner’s Turnaround Agenda, and arguably the most popular. If you go by public polling numbers, Illinois is more than ready to turn over the process of redistricting—which has been a subject of political struggle for the past 140-plus years—to a nonpartisan arbiter. Last year, the Paul Simon Institute at SIU found that seventy-two percent of respondents favor an independent redistricting commission.

Perhaps this sentiment is related to the budget impasse and the state’s long slide into fiscal oblivion, but not necessarily; redistricting is popular across states and time periods. A 2013 Harris poll found that 50 percent of Americans favored independent state commissions, with the rest divided among five other categories and just 14 percent in favor of lawmakers redoing the lines. Gerrymandering (when lawmakers draw districts to favor their own party) has become such a national problem that it was even the subject of a popular Last Week Tonight episode, garnering more than 5 million views on YouTube.

Last year Illinois lawmakers tried to reform its redistricting process, but failed. It came down to a heated 4-3 division on the Illinois Supreme Court, in which the Democratic majority judged that the redistricting initiative overreached; lawmakers could modify the “structure and procedure” of the legislature but not non-legislative offices like the auditor and state Supreme Court.

Basically, the state auditor would play a small administrative role in redistricting, and the Supreme Court could play a big one, by choosing someone to redraw the map in the event the independent commission couldn’t pick one. These procedural matters might be minor or unlikely, but it was enough to derail what had already been an uphill battle to get a ballot measure passed.

Political support, from both the masses and the powerful interests that supported the ballot measure, made it possible to push the widespread (if somewhat apathetic) support of such an effort. Doing it twice is a lot to ask, but the support for it is unlikely to change. If so, there’s an appealing option sitting on the shelf: a plan from the Illinois state representative-slash-Fermilab researcher Mike Fortner that I wrote about in 2013.

Complex as redistricting is, Fortner’s amendment was conceptually pretty simple: districts should be “compact, be contiguous, be substantially equal in population, reflect minority voting strengths, promote competition, and consider political boundaries.” Those criteria are scored; the maps with the top three scores go to a vote requiring a three-fifths majority to pass, so the parties basically have to agree; if they can’t, the Secretary of State automatically certifies the map with the highest score.

(“Reflect minority voting strengths” isn’t an abstract ideal; Illinois, being relatively diverse, has to be careful to comply with the Voting Rights Act.)

Here’s the funny thing about redistricting: it might not really do anything about the politics of the state. As three political scientists found in 2012: “our findings are consistent with other research that shows that redistricting has extremely modest effects on the modern trends of increasing polarization and declining competition. These effects, where they exist, are also not as straightforward as critics of partisan redistricting suggest.” Bipartisan commissions led to less competition in elections immediately following their creation, and then no clear patterns thereafter.

So why bother with redistricting reform? Maybe because it sounds nice:

While none of the other categories of non-legislative redistricting appear to offer any significant improvement over traditional legislative redistricting, the independent commissions that have been adopted in Arizona, Idaho, and Washington in the last 20 years seem to offer an approach to redistricting reform that has a positive effect on citizen trust.

Of all the issues on the table over a potential grand bargain, independent redistricting might be the easiest to come to an agreement over. Just don’t expect it to turn around very much.

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