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The Good, The Bad, The Ugly: Three Other States Can Offer Illinois Lessons on Redistricting

Legislative redistricting is the most important political process that most people know the least about. This insider’s game of political baseball provokes intense anxiety from politicians, high-pitched indignation from reformers and yawns from most voters. But as this year’s cycle of redistricting approaches, it is a good time to reflect on its profound effect on the fortunes of politicians and political parties, its potential impact on public policy and the possibility for reform.

During the first half of the 20th century, many states ignored the shifting populations in their legislative and congressional districts, so as people left the farm and moved to cities, rural areas had more political clout than their population warranted. That ended with a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the early 1960s. Each state is now required to reconfigure its legislative and congressional districts after each census, so that all districts in a given chamber — such as the U.S. House or Illinois House or Senate — are equal in population. 

Now, as states carve out districts for their legislative chambers and congressional delegation to make them conform to the equal-population mandate, they take into their hands the political lives of the state’s politicians. And when state legislators decide district lines, as they do in most states, they have considerable influence over their own political fortunes. A lawmaker’s district boundaries can mean the difference between a safe seat for the next 10 years or early political retirement. Since people tend to live near others who vote as they do, political mapmakers can imperfectly manipulate the proportion of Democrats and Republicans in each district — so-called partisan gerrymandering. And congressional district boundaries can have a large impact on a state lawmaker’s ability to move up the political ladder. 

This sort of arbitrary hardball politics drives good-government reformers crazy: Why should legislative districts be based almost solely on the political interests of the state lawmakers who draw them? But there is a serious and unresolved debate about what criteria — if not political considerations — redistricters should use to configure boundaries. Some argue that existing municipal and county boundaries ought to be followed as much as possible or that communities of interest should be kept together. Some would like to see districts that increase partisan competition or that keep as much of a previous district together as possible. Forty-one states enshrine two or more of these desiderata into their redistricting laws. Illinois, however, has codified only one such criterion, other than requiring legislative districts to be equal and contiguous: They should be as compact as possible. But how much is “possible” and just what exactly “compact” means are open questions.

A look at Illinois’ current legislative districts suggests that quite a loose definition of “compact” was used in the 2001 redistricting process. In the absence of clear criteria, those who draw the maps must use their own — usually political — rationale for outlining district boundaries.

It is not clear, however, what changes should be made in Illinois’s redistricting process. While no state has really gotten it completely right yet, Illinois may be able to learn from the redistricting reforms in three other states. Before Illinois reformers regroup to take another run at redistricting, they might want to look at what happened in Iowa, Texas, and California. Each offers Illinois a lesson about what to do — and what not to — in reforming legislative redistricting.

Iowa has a unique redistricting system that aims to eliminate political gerrymandering and incumbent protection through a two-step process. First, nonpartisan legislative staffers draft legislative district maps based almost solely on simple population data, with an eye toward not splitting cities and counties between districts, when possible. By law, the redistricters are not even allowed to consider where incumbent lawmakers live. Second, the Iowa General Assembly considers the maps drawn by their staffers on an up-or-down vote. Lawmakers are not allowed to tweak the districts. If legislators vote down a map, their staff can draft another set of districts for legislative consideration. But public and media pressure to keep the process nonpartisan usually shames lawmakers into accepting the first or second plan. 

The result is that Iowa has legislative and congressional districts that are more competitive than those in almost any other state. For example, when the current maps were first used in 2002, it put 64 incumbent state legislators (out of a total of 150) in districts with at least one of their colleagues, and two of Iowa’s five U.S. House members were likewise paired up. When lawmakers are in complete charge of their own redistricting, nothing like this sort of incumbent slaughter ever happens. And just as important as the number of incumbent-on-incumbent races, there was no partisan bias in the Iowa map. For instance, the two members of Congress placed in the same district were both Republicans, even though the GOP controlled both chambers of the legislature that approved that map.

Texas’ legislative maps are approved through the regular lawmaking process. But it isn’t the institution of redistricting that makes the Lone Star State’s most recent experience instructive; it’s how their lawmakers played the redistricting game. 

Democrats held a slim majority in the Texas State Legislature in 2001, giving them a free hand to draw their maps. In particular, Republicans were irked by the new congressional maps, and that instigated what can only be called Texas’ “Great Redistricting Wars.”

In the 2002 election, Democrats in Texas won 17 U.S. House seats, compared with the Republicans’ 15 seats. But Texas Republican?U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay of Sugarland thought that his state’s congressional delegation should better reflect the percentage of the votes that Texas had given favorite son George Bush in 2000 — 59.3 percent. And DeLay, then the U.S. House majority leader, had plenty of political clout. So when Texas Republicans took control of the state legislature in 2002, he had a novel idea: Why not re-redistrict? That is, he persuaded the legislature to draw a new set of congressional districts that would be more favorable to his party. 

Although no state had ever tried to redistrict more than once a decade, DeLay and his allies had no reason besides tradition to believe they couldn’t do it. A superheated political battle ensued as they moved their new map through the legislative process in 2003, including the spectacle of Democratic state legislators twice fleeing the state to deprive the legislature of a quorum. Opponents fought the plan unsuccessfully all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry, the court held that states could redraw their congressional — and by extension, their state legislative — districts whenever they wanted to, so long as they did so at least once a decade. In the end, the Republicans’ redistricting plan also succeeded at the polls. Following the 2004 elections, the GOP had a 21-11 margin in the Texas delegation in the U.S. House.

This year, California will approach redistricting with a new system, one that is unique in the country both for its independence and its complexity. 

Californians had been trying unsuccessfully for decades to remove legislative redistricting from the legislative process. After the 1970 and 1980 censuses, the state’s congressional maps were held up as bad examples of incumbent protection and partisan gerrymandering. Between 1980 and 2005, voters in the Golden State rejected five initiatives for redistricting reform, even one that popular then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger campaigned for vigorously. Finally, by a slender margin in 2008, California voters approved Proposition 11, which set out a new process for redistricting state legislative districts. Proposition 11 established the Citizens Redistricting Commission (CRC), and although several other states already use redistricting commissions, the CRC is unusual both in its independence and the complex process used to ensure that independence.

The primary goal of Proposition 11 was to establish a redistricting process that was not controlled by the legislators whose districts were being redrawn. Other states’ commissions are closely tied to their state legislatures and political parties. Even members of Arizona’s highly touted new commission are selected by legislative leaders. The CRC will be free of any such taint, but achieving that goal is so unwieldy that it threatens to collapse under its own weight. 

The process for selecting CRC members goes like this:

  • First, the state auditor solicits applications from private citizens for membership on the commission. To be qualified, applicants must have voted in at least two of the three last elections and have not held public office for at least 10 years. They cannot have worked for a political party or candidate or donated more than $2,000 to a candidate for the legislature or Board of Equalization.
  • Second, private citizens interested in serving on the commission send in their applications. The state auditor has received more than 16,000 applications for the 2011 CRC. 
  • Third, the auditor establishes the Applicant Review Panel (ARP), a three-member team consisting of a Democrat, a Republican and an independent or third-party member.
  • Fourth, the ARP reviews the membership applications and selects 60 finalists, 20 each of Republicans, Democrats and independents.
  • Fifth, the leader of each of the four state legislative caucuses eliminates two finalists from each of the three partisan groups, leaving 12 in each group.
  • Sixth, through a random drawing, the auditor chooses the first eight CRC commissioners from the 36 finalists, drawing three each from the Democrats and Republicans and two from the independents. 
  • Seventh, these first eight CRC commissioners then select six more commissioners from each of the remaining 28 finalists, two from each of the partisan groups. These final six CRC commissioners are to be chosen based on qualifications and complementary skills.

The resulting CRC will have 14 members: five Democrats, five Republicans, and four others. The CRC then will use 2010 Census data to draft proposals for state legislative and congressional districts, which are then submitted for public comment for at least 14 days. Following further editing, at least nine members of the CRC — three Democrats, three Republicans and three independents — must approve a plan before it can be adopted. But even then, the process may not be over. The final plan is subject to both a voter referendum and challenges in the state’s Supreme Court.

There could be no starker difference between the political conflict and innovation in the name of partisan advantage in Texas and the technocratic, bloodless redistricting institution assiduously designed to avoid any hint of political unfairness in Iowa. And California’s hyper-complex process, born out of frustration and what some believe is a broken direct democracy system, is far different from either of the other two states’ systems. But those states’ widely varying experiences can provide Illinois lawmakers and voters with lessons about reform and the process of redistricting this year.

First, it’s clear that Iowa’s relatively homogenous demographics and economics would make a straight transfer of its process to Illinois both politically and practically difficult. In particular, racial and ethnic representation needs to be a significant consideration in any legislative map in Illinois, where non-Anglos constitute almost 30 percent of the population. That is less of a factor in Iowa, whose population is 93 percent white. 

However, Iowa’s experience demonstrates that nonpartisan redistricting can be adopted and have an impact on electoral competitiveness. Although Iowa has only 1 percent of the United States’ population, its political maps generated 10 percent of the competitive congressional races in the country in the early 2000s. Furthermore, even though Iowa lawmakers crave re-election just as much as their opposite numbers in Illinois, public and media pressure keeps them from circumventing the process, even if it will end their political careers. That proves that public attention and concern can influence even this most arcane legislation.

Probably the most important lesson Illinois lawmakers can learn from Texas is that the Lone Star State’s Redistricting Wars were caused by political overreaching by both Democrats and Republicans. If Democrats had tried to reflect better the state’s political distribution in 2001, they might not have raised DeLay’s ire. The extremely gerrymandered Democratic maps incited the Republicans to try their unprecedented attempt at re-redistricting and persuaded Texas voters to accept it. On the other hand, the Republicans’ innovation, now approved by the U.S. Supreme Court, may have opened a Pandora’s Box. Democrats may find themselves using this new tool at some point in the future. Furthermore, the lack of decorum and hyper-partisanship that the whole episode generated left the Texas legislature open to national ridicule and an even lower level of public support than in most states.

In fact, Illinois lawmakers may have already understood that lesson. Even though Illinois continued to trend strongly Democratic, 10 Republicans won U.S. House seats in the first congressional election after new maps were drawn, compared with nine Democrats. Democrats might well have worried about their chances throughout the rest of the decade because the 19 congressional districts were widely understood to be gerrymandered to protect incumbents. But even though the state was seen as ripe for following Texas’ lead in re-redistricting when Democrats took over the governor’s mansion and the state Senate in 2002, the Democrats demurred. Perhaps the political bloodbath in Texas gave them pause.

Finally, what are the redistricting lessons from California? First, as in Texas, the Golden State’s experience shows that political frustration can lead to unorthodox ideas. Furthermore, the rejection of multiple redistricting initiatives demonstrates voters’ deep suspicion of the process, a suspicion that policymakers should notice. Even though redistricting remains one of the most incomprehensible components of the American political process, citizens seem to be paying more attention to it in recent years, with the help of aggrieved political parties, other groups and the media. If voters do not accept that their representatives’ political districts are legitimate, they may not accept the legitimacy of their representative institutions. Perhaps some of the unprecedented disapproval of government in recent years can be traced in part to that.

But perhaps the most important lesson from California’s experience is more direct: Keep reform simple. Even if Californians manage to redraw their maps through their new complicated system, voters with a grievance may claim that the process lacks clarity and accountability. While technocratic reformers may applaud the independence of the CRC, the fact that its members will be largely unknown to the public may lead voters to worry about behind-the-scenes political mischief.

The extreme — and extremely different — redistricting reforms and experiences of these three states also show that despite the arcane and intensely political nature of the redistricting process, change can happen. While it’s too late to reform Illinois’ redistricting institutions for this year, advocates of change should strike now. Moving on to other good-government causes and waiting 10 years before tackling redistricting again would be a strategic mistake. Ignorance and apathy are on the side of those who favor the status quo. They can just wait out the reformers until it’s too late — again — in 2021. 

But perhaps the best lesson that Illinoisans can draw from these states’ redistricting experiences is that major reforms are necessarily not the answer — or at least not the first one. Rather than a total overhaul of the redistricting process, the first step toward reform should be a serious discussion about what a redistricting process should attempt to achieve.

Currently, Illinois’ legislative districts must be equally populated, contiguous and compact, but in practice, “compact” seems to mean virtually nothing. Illinois could begin its redistricting overhaul by deciding on clearer redistricting criteria, just as 41 other states have already done. Should Illinois legislative districts match local government boundaries and other types of communities whenever possible? Should districts enhance political competition, which might be good for keeping lawmakers responsive to voters’ needs and bring fresh blood into the Statehouse more often? Regardless of the criteria, future Illinois map-drawers need guidance in clear statutes, rules and/or constitutional provisions.

In fact, establishing redistricting criteria may be politically easier than overhauling the entire process, and it may be more difficult to block, since better-defined criteria typically are less threatening to the status quo and more acceptable to voters. And strategy aside, even if it would be possible to change the redistricting process — even to something as attractive to good-government reformers as the Iowa process — doing so without agreeing upon and spelling out what voters want out of that process would likely change the results very little.


Will it be different this time?

Illinois’ history with redistricting does not inspire great hope for statesmanship this year. The 1970 Illinois Constitution gives redistricting authority first to the regular legislative process. A set of maps for U.S. House, state Senate, and state House districts can be developed and introduced as bills in the General Assembly, and once passed, be signed or vetoed by the governor. The signed bill or bills define the districts for those chambers for the next five election cycles.

But if there’s no agreement on one or all of the three maps by the summer, a bipartisan commission would be impaneled to deal with the problem. If the commission can’t agree on the maps by early fall, the process goes to the infamous random tiebreaker: adding one partisan member to the commission by drawing a name from a hat — literally. That leaves one party in complete control of the process. Although the writers of the 1970 Constitution thought that this game of political chicken would scare the parties into a compromise, that has only happened once: in the 1971 redistricting. In 1981, 1991 and 2001, the parties preferred to take their chances on complete control rather than compromise. 

This year, though, things may be different. The November 2010 election determined that for the first time under the current state Constitution, a single party will control all three legs of the redistricting process. That means there probably will be no commission and no name plucked out of the hat. In February, the Democrats will take the census data and their mapmaking computer programs into a quiet, locked room and draw the maps that they think will give them the best political advantage for the next decade. There will likely be some legislative hearings and some GOP handwringing on the subject, but unlike previous redistricting processes, it likely will not be a long drawn out and public process. It probably will be finished by April or May with little media fanfare.

But just because voters may read little about the process in the newspapers does not mean it will be any fairer or have less impact on the state, or that reformers will be any less upset about it. During the last year and a half, there have been legislative hearings and various proposals and even petitions passed for a redistricting voter initiative. But those efforts have come up short, whether because of the inability of reformers to inspire citizen and legislator interest, or by the design of those who prefer the status quo.

Even though this year’s redistricting will be carried out under the current rules, reformers need not wait another 10 years to try to improve the process. In fact, the coming legislative session may be the best time to make changes. With the proper public relations — and assuming that the new maps end up as gerrymandered as the 2001 maps — voters can be educated and mobilized to reform the process for 2021. Just as important, because sitting lawmakers will be as far away from their next redistricting as they will ever be, they may more easily be compelled to act.

Christopher Z. Mooney is professor of political studies in the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois Springfield.

Illinois Issues, January 2011

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