Time is running out to end gerrymandering, an enemy of democracy
During an unprecedented health crisis, it is difficult to focus on anything else. I certainly hope you are all taking this as seriously as I am -- observing social distancing best practices, washing your hands frequently and taking steps to protect the most at-risk individuals in your life.
At the same time, sometimes other circumstances also demand our attention. I write this op-ed because, frankly, circumstances demand we act now if we want to end gerrymandering in Illinois.
Gerrymandering is the process by which party leaders redraw political maps after the census every 10 years. It is an imminent threat to our democracy because, among many things, it allows party leaders to blunt the will of the people and protect incumbents by stacking districts with like-minded voters. Ending the gerrymandering process this year requires the passage of the Fair Maps Amendment (SJRCA 18) -- a constitutional amendment written by a broad, bipartisan coalition of citizens, organizations and elected officials.
Passing a constitutional amendment is no easy feat. First, both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly need to vote to approve a constitutional amendment question by a three-fifths majority vote. Then, sixth months must pass before an amendment can appear on the general election ballot where it must be approved by the voters. In effect, that makes the deadline for action this year May 3.
Like so many of you, legislators are working from home. There are no provisions for the General Assembly to vote remotely, so we must return to session in order to vote on emergency measures, appropriations and constitution ballot questions. As of this writing, we anticipate that we will be in session for perhaps a day or two in April, although those dates are about as certain as anything else these days. It doesn't give us much time.
By now, you may be asking yourself, so why not just do it next year?
I'll tell you why: If we miss this deadline, we don't miss just one year. We miss 10 years.
Redistricting of political maps is done in conjunction with the census, which is held every 10 years and is currently under way. If we miss the window this year, we will have to wait 10 full years to level the playing field in Congress and the Illinois General Assembly. That's 10 more years of political parties picking your elected officials by gerrymandering the maps that create their district. I don't know about you, but to me that's unacceptable.
Gerrymandering is an enemy of democracy. As we saw in the 2018 midterms, voters came out in record numbers to express their displeasure with the current state of our country on both the federal and state levels. Heavily partisan maps skewed the results despite record turnout. The power of gerrymandering can't be overstated. Unfair maps only benefit the party in power and strip the minority party of any agency. Districts are "packed" with Democratic-leaning or Republican-leaning voters, creating "safe" districts for incumbents. This practice to splinter the vote to create "safe" seats must end.
We have also witnessed gerrymandering contribute to the extreme partisan polarization of our entire political system. Manipulating a district to benefit a political party pushes incumbents to adopt more extreme political views in an attempt to hold their seat. As Democrats become more liberal and Republicans more conservative, they drown out the moderates and centrists who have already been pushed to near extinction in today's political environment.
When an incumbent's only fear becomes a primary challenge, their goal will be to maintain ideological purity rather than to work pragmatically toward good bipartisan legislation.
The disparity in geographical size and shape of heavily gerrymandered districts is also unfair. Many districts can barely meet the legal requirements of being contiguous, compact and equally populated.
Please call on your legislators to pass the Fair Maps Amendment (SJRCA 18) and put the question on the ballot so YOU can decide who represents you.
The Fair Maps Amendment will establish an independent redistricting commission that must be demographically, politically and geographically representative of our state to draw our congressional and Illinois General Assembly maps. It will:
• Remove politicians and sitting legislators' ability to draw their own districts;
• Establish an independent redistricting commission that must be demographically, politically and geographically representative of our state to draw our congressional and Illinois General Assembly maps;
• Protect the constitutional rights of communities of color to elect a representative of their choosing;
• Add sunlight and transparency by requiring the release of all communications made by the commission as well as any data used to create and propose any and all maps; and
• Give the public the opportunity to participate in the process by requiring at least 30 public hearings on the maps before a final vote is taken.
I'm asking for your help. It's common sense. Please demand your legislators take a stand for our democracy and call the Fair Maps Amendment for a vote in this session. Please join our Rally in Place on Thursday, April 2, (https://www.changeil.org/get-involved/) to make sure your voice is heard. And above all else, don't stop fighting to make our democracy as fair as it can be. We need your voice now more than ever.
And while this public health crisis continues, please -- stay home when you can, respect social distancing if you must go out and above all, be safe.
• 31st District Illinois state Sen. Melinda Bush is a Democrat from Grayslake.