What Makes A Legislative Map ‘Fair?’ For Top Democrat, Equity, Not District Shape, Is Key
State lawmakers this week will kick off the once-in-a-decade process to reshape how Illinois’ legislative and congressional maps are drawn.
But they face one major problem: the U.S. Census Bureau says it won’t be able to distribute 2020 Census data to states until September — far beyond the usual spring deadline.
That also bumps up against the timeline laid out in Illinois’ constitution for approving new legislative maps. Senate President Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) says lawmakers shouldn’t wait on the new data, and instead start the process now, relying on other estimates, like the American Community Survey from 2019, and tweak numbers when the Census Data becomes available in six months.
“Iowa is getting underway with its process,” Harmon told NPR Illinois Tuesday. “Oklahoma evidently is going to begin using the 2019 estimated data from the American Community Survey, which in the past has been a reliable predictor of the final Census data…We'll hear from [National Conference of State Legislatures] about best practices in other states, and hopefully find a path to follow.”
Harmon would like to avoid the process laid out as a backup plan if the General Assembly fails to agree on new district boundaries by the constitutionally mandated June 30 deadline — which lawmakers have blown past four of the past five decades since Illinois’ 1970 constitution has been in place.
If that happens, the mapmaking process gets punted to a bipartisan, eight-person Legislative Redistricting Commission, which then faces an Aug. 10 deadline to file a redistricting plan. If the panel deadlocks on a plan, the Illinois Supreme Court must submit two names — a Republican and a Democrat — to the Secretary of State, who will randomly draw one of those names to break the commission’s tie.
Three of the four times this has happened, the advantage has gone to Democrats. But even as the party holds supermajorities in both the Illinois House and Senate, Democrats are facing what could be a tough election year in 2022, and would rather not take the risk.
Also at stake is legislative representation for Black, Latino, Asian and other minority communities across Illinois, on top of the fact that due to Illinois’ population loss over the last decade, the state is likely to lose one — if not two — congressional seats in the decennial shuffle of the 435 seats in the U.S. House.
Though some “Fair Maps” advocates are still advocating for an independent commission to draw the legislative maps five years after a failed bid to alter Illinois’ constitution for that process, Democratic leaders are resisting that call and focusing instead on starting — and finishing — the mapmaking process this spring.
Harmon and his counterpart, new Illinois House Speaker Chris Welch (D-Hillside), both say they’re committed to “Fair Maps,” and have appointed redistricting committees in the Senate and House. Both are led by Latino lawmakers — a group that has traditionally been underrepresented politically, but has gained in power in the last decade and is looking to reach parity with white and Black communities in terms of legislative power.
But every constituency from Black, Latino, Asian and other ethnic minority groups in Illinois — to rural and suburban Republicans and downstate Democrats — will be looking to maximize their influence in the mapmaking process for a chance at more representation in Springfield and Washington.
Harmon sat down with NPR Illinois on Tuesday to chat about what he thinks constitutes a “fair” map. The 10th term Democrat says it’s not the shape of districts that Illinoisans should be focused on.
* * *
NPR Illinois: People love to talk about “fair maps,” but, of course, that's a really subjective concept. Republicans from downstate might think that “fair maps” means a legislative map that yields more GOP representation. A member of the Latino Caucus may view a fair map as one that yields more representation from majority Hispanic communities that’s more in line with the state's population demographics. What's on your personal rubric when you think about what fair maps means to you?
Harmon: I think Speaker Welch hit the nail on the head when he said a fair map is one that reflects the diversity of our state. I would like to see everybody at the table — all communities of interest — heard, and through a thorough and thoughtful redistricting process, come up with a map that fairly and equally represents the communities across the state.
NPR Illinois: Is it right for Democrats to seize the opportunity to eliminate Republican districts if you can?
Harmon: Our objective is to make sure that there is fair and equal representation. Democrats are happy to battle on ideas and our ideals, and I think that a fair map process that reflects the diversity of the state is one in which Democrats can compete for votes.
NPR Illinois: And when you look at our current maps, can you point to any specific district or area where you feel like that's an obvious thing that we need to fix — that's patently unfair?
Harmon: I think that the current maps are remarkably fair. If you look at the election results, for instance, I think [former GOP Gov.] Bruce Rauner won 37 of the 59 Senate districts in his gubernatorial race. Clearly, voters express their preferences for the best candidate in any given race, and we're willing to compete for the hearts and votes of people based on our ideas and our ideals.
NPR Illinois: People get very animated about some of the weirdly shaped legislative districts and congressional districts and wards in Chicago. Does that make your list of things to worry about? Or is it more important to join minority communities to create a district for that population, no matter how “weird” it looks?
Harmon: [Laughs] Too much importance is attached to shapes. It would be lovely if everything were organized in rectangles. But Illinois is not a rectangle, and there are plenty of municipalities in the state that are incredibly irregular shaped themselves. What's important in putting together a fair map is one that reflects the communities of interest and ties them together and gives everybody a seat at the table.
NPR Illinois: Speaking of rectangles, Some folks point to states like Iowa, which does map making via computer, and ends up having mostly square legislative districts. But of course, Iowa is a state with a much more homogenous population than Illinois. Is there a happy medium for folks who advocate for that sort of extreme nonpartisan process?
Harmon: I think that the Iowa process has been sold as something it is not. A computer doesn't draw the districts; the people programming the computer do. Iowa is more homogenous, but there's not a single African American in the Iowa Senate. And I don't know that is a question of chance or or not. Illinois has a richly diverse community, and has led the way on representation of minority communities, particularly African Americans. And I wouldn't trade places with Iowa on that score any day.
NPR Illinois: It's always interesting to me that the very same things that people in red states point to as a violation of the Voting Rights Act when it comes to drawing district maps — stuff like “packing and cracking” districts — are the very same thing that Democrats here do, but in service of upholding the Voting Rights Act and its ideals. Is that a double standard?
Harmon: We do our very best to fully comply with the federal Voting Rights Act and to go beyond it. The Illinois Voting Rights Act adds layers of obligations to us. And I'm very proud of the work that we have done to maximize the representation of all communities. I don't know that we could apply [the Voting Rights Act] differently if we wanted to, given the incredible diversity of the state. And it's not just racial diversity; it’s geographic diversity, it’s economic diversity — we want to make sure everybody has a seat at the table and all those voices are heard in the General Assembly.
…I think that it is important. I don't want to preordain any outcome, but I think everybody needs a seat at the table. And communities that have been marginalized in the past — the African American communities, the Latina/Latino/LatinX community — they need to have their voices heard in the redistricting process.
NPR Illinois: The Census Bureau is going to be extremely delayed in getting Census data to states, which has the potential to screw up the timeline laid out in the constitution for redistricting. Four times since 1970 the redistricting process blew past the deadlines and went to the redistricting commission and then tiebreaker kind of rolled the dice, three times Democrats kind of won…But you just said a couple of minutes ago when asked about the current map and you said the map was fair. So, if the process that we've been using yielded what you called a fairly, you know, good map, what's wrong with it?
Harmon: Well, the process that we use 10 years ago is the same process we propose to us this year, where the General Assembly conducts hearings all across the state, takes input from every stakeholder group that seeks to provide input, and then draws a map that reflects the diversity of the state and provides for fair and equal representation. That's what we hope to do in this General Assembly before June 30th. And I think it is, it is defensible: 177 members of the General Assembly elected by their communities, reflecting the diversity of the state, all have a voice in this process. And in the end, I think it is the best way to provide for fair and equal representation.
NPR Illinois: Going back to the potential massive delays for this new census information, you have an op-ed in the Sun-Times today about redistricting, [in which you wrote]:
“Failure to meet deadlines would upend the democratic process and turn mapmaking over to a small commission of appointed political insiders and as history has shown, ultimately yield a more partisan results. That would be a disservice to our citizens in counter to everyone's stated goals.”
So how are we going to meet those deadlines. If we don't have all the data from the Census Bureau, do you want to use alternative data.
Harmon: Well, the delay in the Census data is obviously problematic and a new challenge in a year full of new challenges. That said, our first hearing tomorrow we're going to hear from the National Conference of State Legislatures, they're going to share with us what other states are doing, and other states are proceeding with redistricting. Iowa is getting underway with its process. We've heard Oklahoma is moving forward. Oklahoma evidently is going to begin using the 2019 estimated data from the American Community Survey, which in the past has been a reliable predictor of the final Census data. And Oklahoma has indicated that if the final census data differs wildly from the, the estimated data they can go back and fine tune their map. So we'll hear from NCSL about best practices in other states, and hopefully find a path to follow.
NPR Illinois: If you do use that American Community Survey data, I've seen a couple of legal experts predict lawsuits. What happens then? Would you be willing to take the risk that our maps, end up in court?
Harmon: I think regardless of what data we use, including final Census data, the maps will inevitably be challenged in court. It's up to us to provide a fair and transparent process, and draw a map that is fair and equitable and reflects the diversity of the state and the communities of interest. And just as we have in the past, I would certainly be comfortable, defending our actions in court.
NPR Illinois: If, in 2022, Republicans, lose even more power in the legislature, can you say, ‘Yeah, that's just a result of them, not campaigning hard enough or their ideas are, you know, not good enough for voters.’ Or is there any part of that that goes back to how the districts are shaped in the fact that Democrats have held this power of the pen.
Harmon: I would say that the Democrats today represent districts we never imagined Democrats would represent. But I think that's a question of the the ideals and the ideas put forth not only by Democrats in Illinois, but also by Republicans, particularly nationally. I don't know how you could have predicted that swing of the pendulum. But every two years, the General Assembly stands for election and the voters can say I don't like the direction you're going. I'm going to go in a different direction. That's why we have elections every two years.