As deadline for referendum on independent redistricting passes, advocates refocus
The COVID-19 pandemic has killed the chance for voters to amend Illinois' constitution this year and establish independent redistricting, much to the chagrin of advocates who say their focus will shift to pushing legislators to take direct action.
The General Assembly hasn't been in session since early March, and May 3 was the deadline for lawmakers to put a referendum on the November ballot asking voters to place redistricting in the hands of an independent commission.
"It's extraordinarily frustrating and disheartening," particularly for those who've been working on the initiative for more than a decade, said Madeleine Doubek, executive director of the nonpartisan not-for-profit group Change Illinois. "We're now going to have to push for as many improvements as we can achieve through legislation, not an amendment."
District boundaries at the federal and state level are redrawn every 10 years to account for population changes as per the U.S. census. In Illinois, redistricting is done by the General Assembly in partisan and less-than-transparent ways.
Establishing independent redistricting is supported by a majority of Illinoisans and legislators on both sides of the aisle. State Rep. Terra Costa Howard, a Glen Ellyn Democrat and co-sponsor of the bipartisan bill, said both parties' leaders are working to develop "a path forward" that will allow the legislature to return to session. Ensuring the safety of staff members is paramount, she said.
"I will be in close contact with my colleagues over the coming days to talk about what we can do to ensure a fair electoral map for the voters of Illinois," she said.
In the coming session, state legislators can improve transparency for remapping by requiring the process to follow the Open Meetings Act, honoring the Freedom of Information Act, and requiring a certain number of hearings and consideration of public input, Doubek said.
The legislature also could establish an independent advisory commission that would draw maps for approval by state legislators, she said.
Moving forward is largely up to Illinois' legislative leaders, Doubek said. There's also the concern that the shortened legislative session because of COVID-19 will limit action to issues like the budget and the pandemic, she said.
"We still need as much support for pushing these improvements as much as possible," she said.
House Speaker Mike Madigan's office didn't return a request for comment Friday.
Senate President Don Harmon "has a history of advocating for redistricting reform and looks forward to working with Sen. (Melinda) Bush and others to see what improvements can still be made," Harmon spokesman John Patterson said.
So why haven't Illinois legislators met virtually, like in Wisconsin?
State law says General Assembly sessions must be held "at the seat of government" and that the governor can convene the General Assembly "at some other place when it is necessary, in case of pestilence or public danger." That leaves to interpretation whether "some other place" can be virtual, but many are calling on Gov. J.B. Pritzker to allow that.
Springfield's closure also has precluded recording increased support for fair maps legislation, because the rules require physically delivering paperwork to be added as a sponsor to legislation, Doubek said.
State Rep. Michelle Mussman, a Democrat from Schaumburg, is among those whose formal support couldn't be added to the record in recent weeks. "Certainly we want the public to feel that the process is honest and transparent, and has been done in a fair way," Mussman said about independent redistricting. "It's inappropriate to put someone's finger on the scale and not in the best interest of the voters."
An unknown is whether Illinois will get census population data by June 30, 2021, the deadline in the state's constitution for legislators to approve redistricting, Doubek said. The census delayed its operations due to the pandemic and announced a new deadline of July 31, 2021, to deliver redistricting counts to states. Census officials didn't respond to questions about that.
If lawmakers don't approve redistricting by June 30, 2021, legislative leaders must appoint an eight-person commission, with four Republicans and four Democrats, to do that. If the commission, expected to be highly partisan, can't agree, it might resort to a random tiebreaker to determine who controls the gerrymander, Doubek said.
"I would hope that Democrats (who control both houses) that are on the fence about this would see that the better option is to come up with a different process to try to get this done," Doubek said.
Could lawmakers redraw maps based on the previous year's U.S. census estimates or other data? "That's one of the big questions," she said.
Illinois is not among states whose constitutions explicitly require U.S. census data for redistricting, but doesn't go as far as states like New York and Ohio, whose constitutions allow using state counts or alternative data sources when federal census data is delayed, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Plus, previous U.S. census estimates might not accurately reflect population counts in light of deaths due to COVID-19, Doubek pointed out.
Meanwhile, the focus ahead remains clear: Persuade state legislators to take action, Doubek said.
"Everybody remains committed to trying to get as much done through legislation as we can, because we just believe this is a foundational problem in our democracy that has to be fixed."