Fair maps advocates hopeful with deadline looming for redistricting referendum

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown uncertainty into lots of things, and a major one is the push for independent and transparent legislative redistricting in Illinois.

The General Assembly has a May 3 deadline to vote on the Fair Maps Amendment, which would ask voters in a November referendum to approve a state constitutional amendment that would put redistricting in the hands of an independent commission.

State Rep. Terra Costa Howard, a Glen Ellyn Democrat and co-sponsor of the bipartisan bill, said momentum had been building, but priorities have shifted.

"This is my No. 1 priority, but I also have to focus on protecting people's lives, making sure there is food supply, that businesses can keep running," she said. "That is the highest priority that we as legislators have right now."

Co-sponsor state Sen. John Curran, a Republican from Downers Grove, agreed.

"I am very hopeful that we will be back and be able to put this matter before the voters. It is very important," he said. "And if we are back and able to do that, we will also have known that we turned the corner on this pandemic and flattened the curve."

District boundaries at the federal and state level are redrawn every 10 years to account for population changes as per the U.S. Census, which is taking place this year. In Illinois, redistricting is done by the General Assembly in partisan and less-than-transparent ways.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the legislature has canceled its third consecutive session week and it's unclear when lawmakers will go back to Springfield. There are also unknowns regarding the ability of the U.S. Census - which delayed field operations by two weeks to Wednesday - to conduct a full count during the pandemic. It's unclear how a delayed U.S. Census would affect the timing of a constitutional amendment vote in Illinois.

The Fair Maps Amendment would have to be approved by three-fifths of lawmakers in both the Illinois House and Senate, said Madeleine Doubek, executive director of the nonprofit Change Illinois, a nonpartisan group that advocates redistricting reform.

"We're very close to that in the Senate," she said. "We have strong bipartisan support in the House as well, but we have more work to do there."

Change Illinois switched its plans for a rally in Springfield to a virtual "rally in place" to be held on Thursday.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has said he would support independent redistricting. Some lawmakers, like Democrat state Sen. Cristina Castro of Elgin, have said they wanted to see the final proposal before deciding whether to support the bill.

Doubek said the proposed legislation is detailed.

"We know and understand that a historic overwhelming majority of the people in Illinois say they support it," she said. "So we are calling on lawmakers to honor that, and allow it to be debated and voted upon."

Costa Howard said the main concerns she's heard about the bill are about the makeup of the commission and protecting underrepresented populations. The bill is solid on both accounts, she said.

"The intention to make sure that groups of people have actual representation," she said.

One should not assume it's easy to spot gerrymandering based on the shape of districts, Costa Howard cautioned. "The assumption that a lot of people make is that perfect squares is the proper way, and it's simply not," she said.

Many have pointed to Illinois' 4th Congressional District as an instance of gerrymandering, but that's not a good example, according to Change Illinois. That district was drawn to protect the interests of Latino and black populations, the group says.

Doubek said better examples are the state's 6th Congressional District, held by Democrat Sean Casten and winding from central Lake County almost to Will County, and the 59th Illinois House District, held by Democrat Daniel Didech and centered around Lincolnshire with a narrow arm that goes into Waukegan. Both Casten and Didech said they support independent redistricting.

Casten pointed to Arizona's nonpartisan commission and Iowa's use of computer software. "I support efforts to curtail gerrymandering, which has enabled politicians to choose their voters rather than the other way around," he said.

Didech said he supports an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to end gerrymandering across the country. "Partisan politicians should not be responsible for redistricting where they can tip the scales to keep an entrenched party in power," he said.

No matter which party is has the majority, "Cheating is still cheating - and it needs to stop," Doubek agreed.

If the General Assembly takes no action by the May 3 deadline, the effort will shift to persuading lawmakers to achieve independent redistricting via legislative action, advocates said.

"I believe we were building momentum before the attention was turned to, appropriately, coronavirus," Curran said. "I believe that if we were able to re-engage on the issue, we will pick that momentum up."

Either way, the issue is pressing, Doubek said.

"If we don't do something," she said, "we will be stuck with gerrymandered districts for an entire decade."

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