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Public Preferences On Redistricting, Revisited

J. Stephen Conn
Flickr (cc by-nc 2.00)

Will the people get the map they prefer or will redistricting in Illinois play out like it did a decade ago? 

In a 2010 essay for Illinois Issues, Jim Kuklinski and I reported results from a survey of Illinois residents focused on redistricting. In brief, people knew very little about who drew the various electoral districts in which they resided, but they strongly preferred non-partisan map makers, and liked districts with simple shapes. By and large, they did not get what they wanted from the remap that took place the next year. 

Pat Quinn’s victory in the 2010 gubernatorial election gave Democrats complete control over state government, and so the new maps were the work of only one party. They drew a new U.S. House map that very effectively erased Republican gains from the 2010 election cycle. The state legislative maps also froze in place a pronounced Democratic skew, returning supermajorities that exaggerate the state’s blue hues and proved useful for the party when Republican Bruce Rauner was elected governor in 2014. 

A decade later, it is again time to revise electoral boundaries. In October, 2020, I fielded the same survey questions, this time to a representative sample of 1,000 Americans responding online to YouGov as part of the 15th  Cooperative Election Study. In anticipation of debate over whether particular maps are or are not “fair,” it should be helpful to revisit public opinion on who should draw political maps, and what features they should have.

Who Should Draft Electoral Maps?

I asked, “Who do you think should be responsible for drawing new electoral districts?” and offered five options, plus “don’t know.” For many, redistricting is an arcane subject, and the popularity of that final option is not amazing. Table 1 shows (other tables can be viewed here) responses according to respondents’ self-identified partisanship and the partisanship of their state government. One response option was to assign responsibility to state legislators and the governor, and a partisan might trust or distrust those individuals according to whether or not his or her side is in charge of the state.

In fact, it turns out that nonpartisan commissions are highly popular and letting the state’s elected politicians draw maps is quite unpopular. Republican respondents were more apt to trust Republican governments to redistrict, but, otherwise, that option garnered low support.  

Credit Illinois House Democrats
Illinois House Democrats
The Illinois House legislative redistricting map

Desirable Map Traits

Another item asked respondents to rank seven possible map traits by importance. Table 2 shows that there was not an extremely strong consensus, as at least some respondents picked each possible rank for each criterion. On the whole, however, the two traits regarded as most important were that the maps proportionally reflect partisan strength, and that boundaries follow existing (administrative) boundaries. The former is, roughly, the antithesis of partisan gerrymandering, wherein maps are expressly designed to inflate partisan lean so that one party translates votes into seats much more efficiently than its rival. The latter is partly a constraint on map makers and partly an attempt to recognize geographic “communities of interest,” which can improve representation of distinct interests.

Interestingly, the stipulation that maps should elect Black and Hispanic members in close proportion to population percentages was comparatively unpopular, not only with white respondents, but equally with non-white respondents. That surprising pattern was true in 2010 as well, and may reflect a little-noticed gap between mass and elite views on best districting practices. 

Credit Illinois Senate Democrats
Illinois Senate legislative redistricting map

Picking A Map

A final question confronted respondents with a mildly complicated exercise wherein they could pick one map from six options for a stylized jurisdiction. Figure 1shows the maps, and the text explaining it. A key feature of the choice is that the hypothetical state was exactly balanced with 50% Republicans and 50% Democrats, but the possible maps varied from skewing strongly to Democratic representation (six D and two R expected seats) to skewing strongly the other way (six Rs and two Ds, in expectation). Only one map was expected to be proportional in partisan terms (one R district, one D district, and six districts expected to tie). That map did not feature simple shapes, so simplicity and party proportionality were, by design, somewhat in tension.

Choosing an electoral map is not a task many people have ever performed, or will ever perform, and it is not surprising that “don’t know” proved to be a common response. But many respondents did make a selection, and an important point about their choices is that partisan gerrymanders were very unpopular.  

Republicans, Democrats, and independents all seem to like simple shapes, i.e., maps B, C, and E. To a striking degree, the partisans do not particularly favor the simple maps that slightly favor their own party: Map C (expected to elect five Rs and three Ds) was not the overwhelming choice of Republicans, and Democrats liked it about as much as they did Map B (five Ds, three Rs).  Map A, which is engineered to be fair, at the cost of being twisty rather than simple and square, is more popular than either of the twisty, extreme gerrymanders (D and F) that convert 50% support into 75% of the seats (6/8). 

Table 3 does not distinguish between “strong” and “not strong” partisans, but even the self-identified strong Democrats and strong Republicans did not like the maps that loaded the dice in favor of their preferred party. Only five of 226 strong Democrats chose Map F. Only eight of 171 strong Republicans picked Map D.

Suppose that you were authorized to pick one of six electoral maps for use in elections from 2022 to 2030 for a hypothetical state. The state has 64 counties, each of which contains 100 voters. It must have eight districts, each of which has 800 voters (that is, eight counties). The white squares are counties in which all 100 voters are registered Republicans. The grey squares are counties in which all 100 voters are registered Democrats. In sum, the state has 3200 registered Republicans and 3200 registered Democrats. The maps differ in how many Democrats or Republicans they are expected to elect.


After 2010, unified control of state government let Democrats draw maps quickly, without reaching the bi-partisan commission stage. If the commission deadlocks, it is enlarged by the addition of a randomly chosen extra member. This procedure was used in 1980, 1990, and 2000, with Democrats winning two of the three lotteries for the tiebreaking vote.

Democrats are again fully in charge this year, but the 2020 census was hampered by the pandemic. The new population data will not be available until September, months later than usual. Democrats in control of Illinois government declined to provide an emergency extension of redistricting deadlines to counties and seem anxious not to miss a June 30 deadline that would shift the state and federal map-drawing authority to the commission. They released proposed maps for the stateHouse and Senate to the public last week and released revised versions Thursday evening. Democrats also released a proposed map for redrawing the electoral districts for Illinois Supreme Court justices. At time of publication on Friday, the House and Senate had approved the Supreme Court map in a vote split along partisan lines, and the Senate had passed the legislative map, also on a party-line vote.

Hence, some or all new Illinois maps will likely be drawn using population estimates, based on statistical models of recent, partial counts produced by the Census Bureau as part of its American Community Survey project. Legal challenges to the accuracy and validity of such data seem very likely, and it is difficult to predict court decisions.

In recent memory, a variety of groups including the League of Women Voters have tried to get a constitutional amendment creating a nonpartisan redistricting commission onto the ballot, only to be thwarted by courts. Table 1, above, suggests that the public would back that change, and is probably fine with waiting for the new census data, even if that delay shifts power away from elected legislators and the governor to a bipartisan commission.

Waiting for the Census Bureau’s release of the 2020 redistricting data would compress the time period for revising electoral maps, and the new lines cannot, of course, be drafted just-on-time for November 2022 elections. But September 2021 data release could be accommodated by temporarily pushing back candidate-filing deadlines and maybe even delaying the primary election, if necessary.

The best rationale for producing timely maps based on questionable data is that it protects the past winners’ power to gerrymander. The findings above suggest that very few ordinary Americans would find that argument compelling.  In 2021, as in 2010, ordinary Americans do not like partisan gerrymandering.  Whatever Illinois maps come forth, the general public is not easily fooled by rhetoric alone. Not even strong partisans applaud maps that distort the public will to make winning extra easy for their side.

Editor’s note: Brian J. Gaines is an Institute of Government and Public Affairs senior scholar and professor of political science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. This essay is a follow-up to one he wrote a decade ago for Illinois Issues about a public opinion survey on redistricting methods conducted at that time.