Want to know why Illinois needs a new system for drawing legislative district boundaries?
Take a look at recent census data.
Bucking statewide trend, Coles County's population was up slightly according to most recently available numbers, at 51,390 on July 1, 2008, and 51,979 on July 1, 2017. We'll be interested to see end-of-the-year numbers for the county. But, on a larger scale, December numbers showed the population of the whole state plummeted 33,703 -- and that's last year alone. That meant Illinois dropped a spot to become the fifth most populous state, behind Pennsylvania.
All of which means the 2020 census could be a game-changer about our state’s influence in Washington. The census determines population, which determines how many seats we have in Congress, which determines our influence on the federal government.
Smaller population and fewer districts mean district boundaries have to be redrawn. In Illinois, that’s done through a kangaroo court-style system in which lawmakers of the controlling political party -- in our case, Democrats -- set down lines. Tinkering to benefit those in power is de rigueur.
A persistent lack of confidence says not a whole lot will change after 2020. That’s why now is the time for Illinois to adopt a constitutional amendment for drawing legislative districts.
Supporters of this cause want lawmakers to take up the aptly titled Fair Maps Amendment, which would make a 16-member panel of seven Democrats, seven Republicans and two independents picked by the state Supreme Court.
"One of our challenges is to help people understand how important this is," said Madeleine Doubek, policy and civic engagement director for the Better Government Association, told the Daily Herald. "When districts are gerrymandered, that's where corruption is born."
Such is true. Safe districts mean lawmakers don’t have to be as responsive to voters. But the path to reform is incredibly rocky, including having to be approved by voters. Similar plans failed on takeoff in 2014 and 2016.
There’s also the squishy legal standing. The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a case involving a Maryland gerrymandering case. In October, a Wisconsin case made it to the high court, but a ruling hasn’t been issued yet.
For Illinois, the good news is that the new effort has bipartisan promise, having been sponsored by Rep. Ryan Spain, R-Peoria, and Sen. Julie Morrison, D-Deerfield, and Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago. Another positive sign is that the bill is inspired by a 2016 measure that got House approval.
We hope legislation survives, but make no mistake, there are powerful forces that don’t want it to live on.
Losing a seat (or more) in Congress is bad. Worse is having the redesign done in a way that makes no sense, only to benefit the powerful.