Push to Change Illinois Constitution to End Gerrymandering Stymied by Pandemic

(Meagan Davis / Wikimedia Commons)(Meagan Davis / Wikimedia Commons)

A high-profile effort to convince Illinois lawmakers to change the way the state draws congressional and state legislative districts has fizzled out after the coronavirus pandemic shut down the General Assembly.

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Madeleine Doubek, a former journalist and executive director of Change Illinois, said it was “disheartening and frustrating” to see Sunday’s deadline for action by the Illinois House and Senate pass without a single committee hearing.

“It was a strange feeling,” Doubek said. “But we saw it coming.”

The new maps are set to take effect for the 2022 elections based on the results of the 2020 census. Legislative districts are redrawn every 10 years to reflect population and demographic changes.

Doubek said the coalition of good government advocates and state lawmakers remain committed to changing the way state legislative districts are drawn in an effort to protect democracy and return power to voters.

The so-called Fair Maps amendment would no longer allow lawmakers to draw their own districts — a process that has created maps designed to benefit the party in power, as well as constrain its opposition.

Instead, the proposed amendment called for a 17-member commission appointed by the chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court and the most senior Supreme Court justice of the opposing political party to draw legislative maps.

Audra Wilson, the executive director of the Illinois chapter of the League of Women Voters, said it was especially frustrating because the campaign had built up real momentum before the pandemic halted Illinois politics.

“Are we going to have to wait another 10 years?” Wilson said. “A lot of people are asking that question.”

Advocates of the amendment are not launching a signature drive to put the question to voters — in 2014 and 2016 redistricting ballot initiatives were eventually found unconstitutional because they did not meet the standard that constitutional amendments initiated by a massive citizen-led petition drive make “structural” and “procedural” changes to the legislature.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has said he’d veto any map that isn’t fair but has yet to detail what criteria he would use to make that determination.

With the deadline in the rearview mirror, Doubek said the Fair Maps coalition would turn its attention to more modest legislative fixes, including a proposal that would ask the General Assembly to appoint an independent commission to draw the maps. The final districts would still have to be approved by the Illinois House and Senate, and signed into law by Pritzker.

That would give members of the public a chance to meaningfully weigh in on the maps before they were approved — and force the discussions usually held behind closed doors to take place at open meetings, Doubek said.

But advocates are also concerned the impact of the pandemic could have a more foundational impact on the effort to redraw Illinois’ legislative districts by delaying the data needed to craft the maps.

Federal officials put off hiring and training temporary census takers in mid-March, and those workers are not scheduled to start knocking on the doors of people who haven’t answered the online questionnaire until August because of the pandemic. 

The U.S. Census Bureau officials have said they will not finish the once-in-a-decade count until the end of October, three months behind schedule. 

That delay prompted officials to ask Congress to approve their plan to delay the release of data to the states until the end of July 2021.

But that means Illinois will miss another crucial deadline: June 30, 2021. That’s the final day for the Illinois General Assembly to approve new maps.

If lawmakers cannot act because they do not have new data, state law requires the leaders of the legislature to appoint an eight-member commission made up of four Democrats and four Republicans to craft the maps. Those maps do not need the approval of the General Assembly — or Pritzker, according to state law.

That has happened four times in Illinois history — and in all but one case, the commission found itself deadlocked along party lines.

To break that tie, the constitution calls for a name to be pulled from a hat — giving Democrats and Republicans a 50-50 shot at controlling Illinois politics for the next decade.

“I’m very concerned,” said Jay Young, the executive director of Common Cause Illinois. “I’m super worried about when we will get real data. Everyone should be worried.”

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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