This is a full response to Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn’s recent column.
Eric Zorn’s recent column criticized the gerrymandering in Illinois and across the nation only to come to the conclusion that it should be acceptable here because other states do it, too. Zorn argues we should do nothing and wait for a national solution.
That conclusion is typically what we see from the very people trying to keep a tight grasp on the redistricting process and their power. If you want to see any further proof, take a look at H.R. 1. The entire Illinois Democratic delegation signed on as co-sponsors and not a single Illinois Republican did. In Illinois, state Republicans are calling for independent redistricting at the state level, while Democrats are trying to claim they are perfectly capable of drawing a “fair map.” There’s perceived power to be gained for Democrats at a national level and for Republicans at a state level. Whichever party has a hold on power in their venue, wants to keep it.
The argument that we should wait for federal lawmakers to make it right is a red herring that can be applied to literally any issue when you don’t have a good reason for the state to step up. And we can spend years on what-about-isms for this state and that state while real representation and our voices continue to be stifled. Imagine if we applied these arguments to raising minimum wage or legalizing cannabis. Cannabis still would be illegal and the minimum wage would remain stagnant at $7.25. Let’s apply that argument to our tax structure: Since federal lawmakers have determined it taxes on a graduated structure, it only makes sense that Illinois should do it as well, no matter what voters said last November. Too bad… we must follow the federal government’s lead in all things, or wait until all 50 states come to the same conclusion.
This isn’t meant to advocate on either side of those issues. It’s only offered up to show that sometimes states, and the people voting in those states, have different views than the country as a whole. Sometimes, people in states need to step in due to federal inaction.
So, let’s break down what has actually happened for independent redistricting at a federal level. The U.S. Supreme Court heard gerrymandering cases brought from two states — one with a Democrat gerrymander, Maryland, and a Republican gerrymander, North Carolina — and decided it is not going to weigh in on partisan gerrymandering. Instead, it’s an issue left for states to take up.
And then there is H.R. 1, which would establish independent commissions for redistricting, but only for congressional districts. That legislation does nothing to combat partisan gerrymandering at a state level. The resolution is stalled in the U.S. Senate and will do nothing to provide relief for the maps that will last for the next decade. I wouldn’t advise anyone to hold their breath waiting for Congress to act.
Lastly, there is the issue of perceived power that would be gained by Republicans in Illinois. We frequently hear people who think independent mapping will lead to a dramatic swing electing more Republicans. Perception is not reality. California, which had an independent commission draw maps in 2011 for the first time, was a strong blue state before they had an independent commission. So, if we were to take Zorn’s logic at face value, that would mean after 2011 Republicans would have been able to claw back majority control, no matter how Californians’ voted. Wrong again. Independent commissions aren’t trying to make the state’s congressional and legislative districts a 50/50 Democratic and Republican split. That’s neither fair nor logical.
In fact, after the 2011 remap, Democrats strengthened their majority in the California state legislature and elected more people of color in congressional districts. California’s state Senate went from 64 percent Democratic to 68 percent and the state House went from 65 percent to 70 percent Democratic. This is, in large part, because commissioners weren’t looking out for the best interest of incumbents or political parties. They were holding meaningful hearings across the state and using that community input to guide how the maps were drawn.
Illinois has the same issue with partisan gerrymandering that exists in every state where state legislatures control the process. We shouldn’t wait for federal lawmakers to give us the representation we deserve. We have to demand better from state elected officials now and keep pressure on them to draw district maps that reflect community input, not their own self-interest.
Ryan Tolley is the policy director for CHANGE Illinois, which advocates for ethics and efficiency in Illinois government.