Editorial: Manipulating voter boundaries is wrong and harmful to democracy, no matter where it's done
An online commenter to our editorial last week criticizing Illinois Democrats for their clandestine, partisan approach to redistricting makes two important points, one explicit, one implicit. Both are important, but it's the implicit observation that holds the most sinister -- and dangerous -- implications for our representative democracy.
First, the explicit complaint: "This is at least your third editorial on this subject. The number of times you have called on similar measures in neighboring states? Zero. Not even a mention. Which makes it appear that the only goal is doing the work of the Republican party."
Actually, the number of editorials we've written on this subject is much larger than three -- over the past five years, it's probably in the dozens -- but the writer's central point is generally correct. Just as we don't necessarily invoke other states' corruption when we talk about that in Illinois, we've rarely highlighted the fact that opaque, partisan redistricting is a significant problem in Republican-dominated legislatures as much as it is in our Democratically-dominated state.
It is. According to the Pew Research Center, Republicans will control redistricting in 20 states this year, Democrats just 11. In a 2019 report, the Center for American Progress estimated that partisan gerrymandering caused at least 59 congressional seats to shift parties in every election between 2012 and 2016, 39 for Republicans, 20 for Democrats. Partisan mapmaking is credited with producing ironclad Republican congressional and legislative majorities in such key states as Texas, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and others, many, like Texas, moving to the further step of making voting at all more difficult.
So, the gerrymander scourge is hardly a problem unique to Illinois Democrats, and its pervasiveness is a real threat across the country.
The commenter's solution -- and the one too many Illinois Democrats adopt -- is that since Republicans have been so successful at drawing legislative and congressional boundaries in their favor, Democrats have to do it wherever they can.
Therein lies the poison of standardizing legislative redistricting. For, not only does it imply that states will eventually produce almost-unshakeable one-party dominance in their legislatures and congressional delegations, but it also guarantees that by frustrating the interests of millions of voters, our politics will become increasingly focused on process and less focused on people -- and thus, more acrimonious and more divisive.
The foundational goal of drawing new legislative and congressional boundaries every 10 years is to guarantee, as Democratic House Speaker Emmanuel "Chris" Welch himself repeated just last week, "one person, one vote." But, especially with the advantage of new technologies, politicians now can draw boundaries with surgical precision to produce unconquerable concentrations of their party's voters in some districts and new advantages over the opposing party in others.
Because the process is so fundamental to our government, it ought to be as open and transparent as possible, but if you want to see just how devious it is in Illinois, take a look at the report on WCIA television in Champaign, at wcia.com, which identifies a near-secret location where House Democrats are huddling to redraw legislative boundaries, forbidden by leadership not only from showing their work but even from discussing what they are doing.
For lovers of democracy, this picture of what's happening in Springfield is just short of horrific. It is even more disturbing to think that the same story is playing out in secret rooms in state capitols across the country. Insofar as those are Republican capitols and Republicans on balance reap the benefits, complaints about Illinois' system from state Republicans start to ring hollow, as our critic complained about us, without concurrent complaints about the process elsewhere. As for Democrats, they will never successfully make the case for broad reforms outside our borders as long as they accept and exploit the existing shortcomings in Illinois.