Last week, Common Cause joined 26 civil rights, faith, nonprofit, and business organizations on a “friend of the court” brief in the Supreme Court of Illinois supporting the fair and transparent redistricting of Illinois General Assembly districts. Attorneys at the Campaign Legal Center and Sidley Austin LLP authored the brief. The Independent Maps campaign collected more than 563,000 signatures to place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would create an independent citizen redistricting commission. The proposed commission would have partisan balance and draw state legislative districts with neutral criteria and strong protections for minority voters.
A trial court ordered the initiative removed from the ballot after stating that proposed reforms went beyond the scope of “structural and procedural” changes that the Illinois Constitution allows voters to make to the General Assembly by initiative. In a brief supporting restoration of the Independent Map Amendment to the November ballot, Common Cause and our allies discuss the extent to which gerrymandering has harmed democracy in Illinois.
The brief describes how “technological advances have significantly changed the map-drawing process, making partisan gerrymandering much more precise and streamlined than ever before.” This technological sophistication has resulted in historic levels of unfairness in drawing districts. As measured by the efficiency gap, the “extent of partisan advantage in the current cycle’s state legislative redistricting plans is greater than at any time in the last 40 years.”
Map drawers have enjoyed so much success in drawing skewed districts in Illinois that voters are seeing only one candidate on the ballot in a steadily increasing number of districts. In 1982, only 24% of House seats and 20% of Senate seats were uncontested. By 2016, that number has jumped to 64% of House seats and 75% of Senate seats.
Illinois’ current system has prevented legislators from working across the aisle to agree on a map all but one time in the last 40 years. In all other census years, legislators reached an impasse that required a tiebreaker to be drawn from a hat. The chart below shows that the party that was given control of the redistricting process as a result of a random draw successfully used that control on every occasion to draw districts that allowed them to gain seats in both houses of the General Assembly. This is clear case of politicians choosing their voters rather than the other way around, so it is no great surprise that “out of all 50 states, Illinois residents have the lowest level of confidence in state government.”
The brief also notes that independent redistricting commissions like the one the ballot initiative would create “have been shown empirically to improve multiple indicators of democracy,” including partisan fairness, the number of contested elections, competitiveness, and responsiveness. We also argue that a narrow reading of “structural and procedural” changes that keeps this initiative off the ballot would “erect an immovable roadblock that would prevent the people from using the mechanism the framers provided to address a political breakdown in the redistricting process.”
Issues: Voting and Elections