A plan being pushed by U.S. Census officials to delay sending population data to states until July 31, 2021, could give Republicans a shot at controlling the drawing of new legislative maps in Illinois.
Whoa. What, you say?
Yep, in what was shaping up to be a shoo-in for the Democratic-controlled Illinois Legislature to draw the maps in whichever fashion they would like, this move could completely undermine their control.
There’s an important deadline in the Illinois Constitution, June 30. If state lawmakers don’t approve new maps — for congressional, state Senate and state House districts — by June 30 of next year, then the Legislature’s leaders must appoint an eight-person commission to take charge of the remap. That commission must be politically evenly split, made up of four Republicans and four Democrats.
So if the Census Bureau doesn’t send Illinois the necessary population data until a full month later — July 31 of next year — state lawmakers will be denied an opportunity to even try to draw the maps.
Also going out the window will be Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s chance to veto any map he deems unfair.
But how, you might be wondering, could that appointed commission — four Democrats and four Republicans — ever manage to agree on one of the most highly partisan exercises in state government?
Historically speaking, these commissions have not.
Since 1970, when the current Illinois Constitution was ratified, three out of the four times when a back-up commission came into play, the commissioners had to resort to a tie-breaker process.
Somebody had to reach into a replica of Abe Lincoln’s stovepipe hat (this being Illinois) and pick the name of somebody — equal chances a Democrat or Republican — to be the tie-breaker. The lucky tie-breaker’s political party then had unilateral control to gerrymander the map in any way they saw fit. There was no compromise.
But what about the time, you might wonder, when the eight-person commission did not resort to picking a tie-breaker’s name out of a hat? What happened then?
In that case, the legislative leaders appointed themselves and their staff to the commission that would draw the maps. This later was ruled to be unconstitutional — it made a farce of the very idea of an independent and bipartisan commission — but the 1972 elections went on as planned using an illegitimate map produced by this illegitimate commission. Then the newly elected lawmakers, having been voted in by an unconstitutional process, simply adopted that same exact map that got them elected.
With Census officials asking for a delay, random selection or shenanigans could happen again in Illinois.
A better solution would be for lawmakers to adopt an independent, citizen-led commission to draw legislative and congressional maps. This is not a new idea; other states have independent redistricting commissions and an effort has been underway to do the same in Illinois for many years now. The most recent proposal for Illinois has widespread bipartisan support in Springfield.
Let’s drop the partisan games. If the remapping process stays the same, one side is going to lose — and it might not be the party everyone expects. Instead, our state could move to a remap process in which the people of Illinois win. Lawmakers have until May 3 to improve our state’s redistricting process. They can do so by calling the Fair Maps Amendment (HJRCA41/SJRCA18) for votes and supporting it’s independent process.
If the Legislature fails to act, its leaders and the governor might want to starting brushing off that old Lincoln hat and collecting four-leaf clovers.
If the Census Bureau succeeds in winning a delay, both Democrats and Republicans in Illinois will need a lot of luck if they hope to control the remapping process — and pick their voters — in 2021.
This op-ed originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times.