With Democrats in firm control of state government, Abe Lincoln’s stovepipe hat will likely not be needed to settle partisan gamesmanship that will shape the state’s political landscape for the next 10 years.
“Democrats control both Houses and the Governor’s office,” said Keith Beyler, professor at the Southern Illinois University School of Law. “They can draw the map any way they want as long as it follows the one person, one vote format.”
Per the Illinois Constitution of 1971, redefining political geographic boundaries falls to the Illinois General Assembly, and the high stakes process of reshaping state House and Senate districts, as well as Congressional districts, is about to get under way.
“Legislative redistricting will be the easiest it’s ever been because they (Democrats) will hang together and combine forces on a map,” said John Marshall Law Professor Ann Lousin. “One party controls the House and Senate and a person nominally of that party is in the Governor’s office, and there are four Democrats on the Illinois Supreme Court.”
The General Assembly will vote by June 30, 2011 on a map that will likely favor Democrats.
But since politics controls the process rather than population facts, the Illinois Constitution provides for likely partisan battles that unfold every decade following the U.S. Census.
For instance, if lawmakers could not get a map passed in the state legislature, the job would fall to a committee comprised of four Republicans and four Democrats appointed by their respective leaders.
If the committee were to fail to meet consensus by Aug. 11, the Illinois Supreme Court would select two candidates, one from each party, to compete for a ninth slot. The slot would be filled by lottery with both candidates reaching into a replica of Lincoln’s hat to choose the deciding ballot.
The lottery was needed in the 1981, 1991 and 2001 redistricting years, putting the 2011 in a class of its own without the need for a redistricting committee.
The composition of the Illinois Supreme Court remains in Democratic control with the recent retention of Justice Thomas Kilbride of the state’s Third Judicial District. Kilbride earned a second 10-year term despite a well-financed effort to unseat him.
Of the about $3.2 million spent on the race, the Illinois Democratic Party donated an astonishing $1.4 million to Kilbride’s retention effort.
Although the General Assembly determines how the state’s Congressional districts are redrawn, it must use traditional guidelines for redistricting based on U.S. Supreme Court decisions including compactness, contiguity, preservation of counties, communities of interest and the cores of prior districts.
“There’s no way you can come up with equal districts,” said Lousin. “To do that, you’d have a terrible time with municipal and county boundaries. You cannot have equal population and still follow local boundaries, and when you get into Cook County — terrible problems with minority rights.”
John Jackson, political science professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, contends that the Democrats in the House and Senate will reach agreements on their district lines and allow the Congressional delegation to work out their lines.
“The congressional delegation usually agrees on a map and they give it to the legislature and they put in a bill,” Jackson said. “The Republicans could push something that benefits the party, but the Democrats have to approve it and the governor has to approve it.”
In 1991, then Governor Jim Edgar objected to the congressional map and it went to the state Supreme Court.
“But I don’t expect that to happen this time,” Jackson said. “If Kilbride hadn’t won, Republicans conceivably would have prevailed on a court-ordered map.”
Yet, with the state poised to lose one of its 19 congressional districts because of its expected population loss, there could be a tussle over which party loses out. The state’s GOP Congressional delegation, with a 12 to 7 majority, has some leverage but could also take the “bleeding.”
Lousin — author of the recently published book, “The Illinois State Constitution, a Reference Guide” — said cutting one congressional district will “be a bloodletting” as both parties fight to retain decide which Republican or which Democrat will go.
“If we lose a congressman it will be most likely be one of the newly elected ones who are Republicans,” she said. “The legislature sends the map to the governor who sends it to Congress. Then the lawsuits start.”
Lawsuits generally charge that redrawn districts aren’t in compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act which requires minority populations to be large enough to ensure their interests are considered.
As history has shown in Illinois, mapmakers can — and do — gerrymander legislative and congressional boundaries in ways that influence the outcome of elections for the following decade by manipulating boundaries in a manner that determines which political party will have the majority of voters.
“There are some clearly and pretty ugly gerrymandered districts,” said Jackson of the Paul Simon Institute. “The 17th and 15th congressional districts are particularly egregious.”
The 15th District, where Republican Tim Johnson was recently re-elected, covers the mid-eastern portion of the state including the communities of Champaign, Urbana, Danville, Mattoon, Charleston, but also has a tail that reaches south down the Illinois-Indiana Border.
The 17th District, which covers a large portion of west central Illinois including the Quad Cities, turned its back on two-time Democratic Congressman Phil Hare and elected Republican Bobby Schilling.
“You might see something happen there,” Jackson said.
Efforts to eliminate gerrymandering and bring redistricting out from behind the closed doors of legislative leaders in the spring legislative session have been futile.
The Fair Map amendment, a citizens’ initiative, died when sponsors failed to gather enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot. A Democratic proposal also was killed when it didn’t get the required two-thirds vote of the House.
Whitney Woodward, policy associate with the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said the Congressional redistricting process remains “a bit uncertain” but holds out hope that it will change.
“Our organization hopes that the advances in technology and computer systems will allow the census data (used in redistricting) to be publicly reviewed,” she said.
Public scrutiny would make the entire redistricting process more transparent than it has in the past, when it’s been what she termed “a back-room type of process.”