In Illinois, the state legislature draws congressional and state legislative districts through the normal legislative process, subject to a gubernatorial veto. Illinois legislators used the redistricting process this cycle to protect a Democratic supermajority in the legislature and squeeze one additional Democratic congressional district out of the map despite the state’s loss of one U.S. House seat post-census. Reformers have attempted to put ballot initiatives creating independent citizen redistricting commissions in front of the voters twice in the last decade. Both times, Democratic political leaders won favorable rulings from the Democratic majority on the Illinois Supreme Court. The court struck the measures due to their assignment of responsibilities to the attorney general and other executive branch officials. This violated the state constitutional requirement that initiatives must only address “structural and procedural subjects contained in Article IV” of the Illinois Constitution, which describes the powers of the legislature.
Overall State Grade: F
Illinois represents a nearly perfect model for everything that can go wrong with redistricting. As Jay Young from Common Cause Illinois stated, “legislators made it very difficult for the public to give input.” Most hearings were scheduled during the workday and, as Madeleine Doubek from CHANGE Illinois noted, “there was little done to advertise and promote the hearings.” Very few members of the public participated in the hearings. There was virtually no language assistance and some locations were not compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements to provide equal access to participation.
In May of 2021, House Speaker Chris Welch’s staff previewed districts for Democratic House members behind literal locked doors on the Capitol Complex grounds. Legislators simply did not expect anyone to show up because they had not encouraged or made it convenient for people to do so. The Legislature initially used American Community Survey data to draw new state legislative districts before the Census Bureau released census data to the states. The resulting maps drew a lawsuit from Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Cooley LLP on behalf of the East St. Louis Branch of the NAACP, the Illinois State Conference of the NAACP (Illinois NAACP), and the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations (UCCRO).
The lawsuit alleged that the legislature’s Democratic leadership diluted the voting power of Black voters in East St. Louis to protect Democratic incumbents. The legislature ultimately prevailed in this lawsuit, but not because no harm to the Black community was found. Instead, the court ruled for the legislature because, as the Lawyers’ Committee described it, “Illinois lawmakers’ guiding motivation was political and partisan and thereby shielded from constitutional review despite the impact on Black voters.” The state legislative maps also drew condemnation and a lawsuit for its reduction in Latinx opportunity districts despite a 15 percent increase in the state’s Latinx population. As Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) president Thomas A. Saenz stated when a federal court upheld the districts, “the court reached conclusions about the extent of crossover voting by non-Latinos to support Latino-supported candidates that are not accurate under the law.
Gold standard reform like the creation of an independent citizens redistricting commission is challenging in Illinois due to the limitations of its ballot initiative process and an entrenched legislature. However, the failures of this cycle’s process point to more achievable but still important reforms that can help make the process more transparent and accessible. These could include advocacy for the following:
- Hearings that take place after work hours;
- Greater language assistance;
- Increased accessibility for individuals with disabilities; and
- Nonpartisan criteria for drawing districts that could survive state constitutional restrictions on ballot initiatives like a strict prohibition against partisan gerrymandering and making communities of interest a higher priority.
Although the landscape for reform is challenging in Illinois, there are important lessons learned from this cycle and previous legal fights that can provide a path forward for improvement.