In the early 2000s, State Sen. Barack Obama gerrymandered his way to a political comeback.
Obama had just lost a Democratic primary for Congress to Rep. Bobby Rush, a challenge that caused some hard feelings among black activists on the South Side. But then, as it so often did during his political career, the luck of a draw favored Obama.
After the 2000 Census, the Republican Senate and the Democratic House failed to agree on a new legislative map, as did an eight-member committee of four Democrats and four Republicans. So Secretary of State Jesse White asked each party to submit a candidate for a ninth member. As dictated by the state constitution, the candidate must be selected at random, so White placed the slips in a replica of Abe Lincoln’s stovepipe hat. He drew the name of Michael Bilandic, the former Democratic mayor of Chicago. The Democrats would draw the new map.
Obama had been elected to represent the 13th State Senate District, which stretched from Hyde Park west to Englewood. He asked instead to represent a narrow band following the Lake Michigan shoreline from 95th Street to the Gold Coast, effectively becoming a lakefront senator rather than a South Side senator. That way, some of the most generous Democratic donors in the state, many of whom live in tony lakeside properties, would see his name on a ballot and his face on legislative updates. Obama’s redrawing of the 13th district to promote his political fortunes was a classic example of a politician choosing his voters rather than the other way around — a central complaint of gerrymandering opponents.
The Fair Maps Amendment, filed before the General Assembly earlier this month, presents a possible solution. The constitutional amendment assigns the next remap to a 17-member bipartisan commission, which excludes legislators or lobbyists. If passed and approved by voters this November, the new process would take effect in 2021.
Fat chance of House Speaker Michael Madigan allowing that to happen. After the 2010 election, Madigan drew a map so unfair that Politico wrote it “punched his ticket to the partisan hall of fame.”
“Madigan’s masterstroke, and its expected effect, ranks him with other storied pols whose mapmaking exploits have become the stuff of political legend,” the publication marveled.
Madigan’s map, which crammed as many Republicans into as few districts as possible, worked exactly as he intended it. In the 2012 elections, the state’s congressional delegation went from 11 Republicans and eight Democrats to 12 Democrats and six Republicans. (Illinois lost a seat after the 2010 Census. Madigan made sure it was a Republican seat: the downstate 19th Congressional District.) In the State House, Democrats gained seven seats, providing Madigan with a coveted supermajority — the 60 percent advantage required to override a governor’s veto.
In his book Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, former Salon editor David Daley mostly blames Republicans for drawing maps that thwart the will of the voters, especially after the 2010 elections gave them control of so many legislatures. For example, a 2012 Republican remap in Wisconsin allowed the party to win 60 percent of the legislative seats despite receiving 174,000 fewer votes than the Democrats.
Daley does, however, give credit to the Illinois Democrats, who are renowned for their political shadiness. Of his nine most egregiously gerrymandered states, only Illinois is controlled by Democrats.
“In Illinois, Democrats who controlled redistricting after 2010… attached pieces of urban, Democratic Chicago to the neighboring Republican suburbs, diluting the Republican vote,” Daley writes.
A Fair Maps Amendment likely would be approved by Illinois voters. In 2018, a similar measure got 61 percent of the vote in Michigan. In 14 states, legislative maps are drawn by independent commissions.
To get on the ballot, though, the amendment must be approved by three-fifths of the House and Senate by May 3. Since Madigan controls the legislative calendar, that seems unlikely.
As a candidate, Gov. J.B. Pritzker spoke in favor of a Fair Maps Amendment. But after relying on Madigan to pass his ambitious agenda last year, he didn't mention the amendment in his State of the State address last month. Instead, he promised afterward to “veto any unfair map that gets presented to me.”
The Democrats, though, could override that veto, using the supermajority they won as a result of the last unfair map. In other words: A well-gerrymandered map guarantees a party the power to continue gerrymandering.