With the New Year freshly upon us, that deep sigh of relief you may be hearing from family, friends and colleagues is a reminder that 2016 is over. Many of us who are breathing a sigh of relief were supporters of the Independent Map Amendment, a measure that would have put an end to gerrymandering in Illinois — the practice of manipulating legislative boundaries to protect incumbent politicians and reduce the number of competitive legislative races.
While the measure was blocked from the November ballot by the Illinois Supreme Court, ironically, another court is giving newfound hope that gerrymandering could be upended across the nation.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard cases from Virginia and North Carolina concerning racial gerrymandering and, in the next several months, it will hear another, more consequential case concerning partisan gerrymandering from Wisconsin.
While courts have been active in addressing racial gerrymandering, they have been reluctant to address partisan gerrymandering because no one has been able to determine when partisanship in redistricting goes too far. The legal team representing the plaintiffs in Whitford v. Gill, including University of Chicago law professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos, the Campaign Legal Center, and a group of private attorneys from Illinois and Wisconsin, were able to break new ground by propounding the long sought-after missing link: a standard by which partisan gerrymandering can be measured. The three-judge panel in Wisconsin was convinced by their arguments and ruled on November 21 that Wisconsin’s state assembly districts are unconstitutional, the first such ruling in 30 years.
Due to special procedural rules, the U.S. Supreme Court must rule on the case if appealed. Justice Anthony Kennedy, seen as the swing vote, expressed his opposition to partisan gerrymandering in the past but only if a judicially manageable standard was proposed, which is exactly what Whitford provides. If the high court agrees that Wisconsin’s legislative boundaries are unconstitutional, the obscene system where politicians choose their voters instead of the other way around could be reined in considerably nationwide.
Supporters of redistricting reform across Illinois should be heartened by the Whitford decision. The case will represent a long-overdue dialogue in the high court and well-deserved scrutiny in our state about the unfair and noncompetitive way Illinois’ political parties draw legislative boundaries. For context, because of partisan gerrymandering, approximately 40 percent of elections for both chambers of the Wisconsin legislature were noncompetitive. By contrast, more than 60 percent of Illinois legislative elections were uncompetitive last November. What ails Wisconsin galls Illinois.
While the Illinois Supreme Court denied the people of Illinois the chance to vote on the proposed Independent Map Amendment last August, support for reform is pervasive throughout the state. More than 70 percent of Illinois voters support redistricting reform and over 560,000 citizens supported the petition for the ballot measure for an independent redistricting commission.
Since the Illinois Supreme Court’s decision, CHANGE Illinois, a coalition of individuals and organizations fighting for fair maps, competitive elections, ballot access, and government transparency, has accepted the baton from the Independent Map Amendment coalition and has been hard at work to find a pathway to enact responsible redistricting in Illinois. We are encouraged that, despite past setbacks, partners, donors and supporters in Illinois and around the nation are standing firm about not giving up. Needless to say, we will be watching the U.S. Supreme Court’s Whitford decision with great interest. In the meantime, we haven’t ruled out any option to bring fairness to the redistricting process in Illinois — including litigation in a federal venue.
I often hear people tell me in my travels that it would take a miracle for redistricting reform to happen in Illinois. When I encounter these doubters, I trade hats from political reformer to a die-hard baseball fan and remind them that change doesn’t happen overnight. If the Chicago Cubs can win the World Series, redistricting reform can and will happen in Illinois.