Illinois lawmakers this week are starting the once-in-a-decade, daunting task of redrawing the lines that make up congressional and state legislative districts. But this process is unlike recent remaps, in part because COVID has delayed the delivery of data mapmakers rely on. That means it’s still unclear whether Illinois will lose one or two seats
Illinois lawmakers this week are starting the once-in-a-decade, daunting task of redrawing the lines that make up congressional and state legislative districts. But this process is unlike recent remaps, in part because COVID has delayed the delivery of data mapmakers rely on.
That means it’s still unclear whether Illinois will lose one or two seats in Congress, on top of the looming question of how lawmakers will balance the drop in Black and the rise of Latino populations, and how Democratic lawmakers who control the state House, Senate, and governor’s offices can wield the remap as a weapon to maintain their local majorities and protect incumbents in Congress.
The first hearings of the Illinois Senate Redistricting Committee kicks off Wednesday, followed by roughly two dozen hearings around the state. The House has also launched its own Redistricting Committee whose work will begin in the coming weeks, House Speaker Chris Welch told a City Club crowd today.
Senate President Don Harmon promises “a thoughtful, thorough, transparent process where everyone has a seat,” and that he and Welch share a belief that a fair map is one that reflects the racial diversity of Illinois.
Harmon says it’s too early to preordain how many majority-Black districts might be lost. “We have a proud tradition in Illinois of ensuring minority representation … that will continue to be a guiding principle.”
Harmon made state Sen. Omar Aquino, who is Latino, a chair and state Sen. Elgie Sims, who is Black, vice-chair (similarly in the House, Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez is chair, and Curtis J. Tarver is vice-chair). “For communities that have been traditionally marginalized, the African-American community, the Latino/Latina/Latinx community to not only have a seat at the table, but to have the gavel, is an important message to the residents of Illinois that all voices are going to be heard,” Harmon says. “They’ve both been staunch advocates for their communities and for good government, and I trust they’ll be able to lead a diverse and representative committee through their process.”
They have a few short months to do it. “We are acutely aware of the constitutional deadline of June 30,” Harmon says, but he’s “confident we’ll get our work done,” including getting public input from all 102 of Illinois’ counties. Even if they meet that deadline, lawsuits from people challenging the fairness of the maps almost certainly await. Harmon says he’s prepared for those, but declined to say who else would be joining the legal team to defend it.
Republican state Sen. Jason Barickman, the minority spokesman on the senate’s redistricting committee, says it’s not too late to let an independent commission take the reins and that Democrats who supported a constitutional amendment for an independent map commission should step up and support it now. The current process “is an attempt to sweep over the desire that a significant majority of the people have: to take away the power that the lawmakers have” to draw their own maps, he adds.
Barickman says Gov. J.B. Pritzker could have the most sway in influencing the process: “If the governor spoke forcefully about his intention to veto anything that we might do that was not the result of an independent commission, I think that would be a game-changer.”
Pritzker’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Good-government watchers are also skeptical of the remap process so far.
“We have a lot of reservations, still, about how this process is going to go,” says Ryan Tolley, the Policy Director at Change Illinois, a nonpartisan good-government group headquartered in Chicago. Change Illinois has been clamoring for a transparent mapping process, with at least 35 public hearings and plenty of time for Illinois residents to sound off on the final map after lawmakers draw it up. Without more information, “it will be easy to fall short of the ideals set out,” Tolley worries.
One of Tolley’s concerns: What data Illinois will rely on.
Harmon hinted mapmakers will probably take a page from Oklahoma’s book and rely on American Community Survey, or ACS, data from 2019, at least for now. They could tweak their maps once the Census Bureau releases its 2020 numbers in the fall. Harmon says officials will take their cue from the National Conference of State Legislatures, who will share best practices at Wednesday’s hearing, but the ACS “has been a pretty good predictor of what the final Census numbers will look like.” If final Census numbers that get delivered in September are “wildly different,” Illinois could retool its districts.
“I want it to succeed but I don’t know how it’s going to work,” Jay Young of Common Cause Illinois says, expressing concern about everything from the subcommittee’s work, to the data its members will rely on, to how he will testify on Wednesday. “I want there to be a plan. If there is, and it is a good plan, I’d love to be able to tell everybody how this is going to work. Certainly, what’s happened so far suggests if there is a plan, it’s not one I’m going to be ultimately happy with.”