Editorial: Why shouldn't Illinoisans expect fair elections like the states that have ended gerrymandering?
When a single political party holds the key to maintaining its hold on power in a state through gerrymandering -- think Republicans in Pennsylvania or Texas, Democrats in Maryland or Illinois -- it's not easy to get them to give it up. But it can be done -- and has been -- when a state's citizens demand it or when lawmakers are willing to put the interests of democracy above their own. Or, when they realize that gerrymandering can also be used against them.
Ten states have changed the way they draw new state legislative and congressional districts after every federal census. Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Michigan, Missouri, Montana and Washington all have created nonpartisan committees responsible for redistricting.
Consider Michigan, one of the most recent states to make the transition.
Michiganders are pretty evenly divided politically, but in 2011 the Republican-led legislature gerrymandered that party into an almost 2-1 majority in congressional seats and substantial majorities in both chambers of the state legislature.
After a vigorous anti-gerrymandering grass-roots campaign, voters in November 2018 approved a redistricting amendment that put the task of drawing legislative boundaries in the hands of an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.
The state is in the process of taking applications for the 13-member commission, which excludes elected officials at the state or federal level, party leaders, paid consultants, lobbyists and other people with skin in the game, as well as their family members.
The idea is to redraw districts with equal numbers of people and continuous shapes, avoid giving unfair advantage to a particular political party and keep towns, neighborhoods, school districts and other collectives together.
Similar efforts have succeeded in the other states, and when government insiders tried to thwart them with legal challenges, most notably in Arizona, the U.S. Supreme Court came down on the side of independence. The court has not been so magnanimous when it comes to gerrymandering broadly and ruled in 2019 essentially that it is up to an individual state to decide how much power to give elected officials to draw their own district boundaries.
That's one reason why it's so critical that Illinoisans be allowed to vote on whether to allow an independent legislative mapmaking process. The notion may seem to fly in the face of selfish political pragmatism, but lawmakers now in control must surely recognize that if they one day lose their grip on the gerrymandering weapon, it could easily be turned on them and shut them out of relevance for decades. And, many -- including courageous leaders like Democrats Melinda Bush, of Grayslake, in the Senate and Terra Costa-Howard, of Glen Ellyn. in the House and others who've already signed on to the Fair Maps Amendment legislation they're sponsoring -- just know it's the right thing to do in a democracy and are willing to fight for it.
Michigan and nine other states have recognized the inherent evil in perpetuating unfairness in an election process that favors one party. If these states can correct such an injustice, Illinois should be able to expect the same of its representatives.