Illinois’ Democratic-drawn remap survives court challenge

A three-judge federal court panel has unanimously upheld the latest Democratic-drawn Illinois state legislative map.

If there are no more court challenges to the new districts, the new Illinois General Assembly districts approved by Democrats will take effect for the 2022 elections. The new maps also will almost certainly make it more difficult for Illinois Republicans to gain traction over the next 10 years against the Democratic veto-proof super-majorities that Illinois Democratic leaders have enjoyed in Springfield for much of the last two decades.

The map approved Dec. 30 by the judges from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois is the second one drawn by Democratic Party leaders this year. 

The Illinois General Assembly’s initial map for the state’s 69 Illinois Senate Districts and 118 House Districts was drawn using American Community Survey five-year estimates rather than U.S. Census data, which had not yet been released in time to meet Illinois’ legislative deadline for approving a new map. 

When the Census Bureau finally released the final numbers “official census data revealed malapportionment in the enacted map,” the court said last week. “The state returned to the drawing board in August 2021 to account for the population changes revealed in the newly-available census numbers and equally apportion the districts.”

That second map, which the court ordered lawmakers to draw, also was challenged by Republicans and minority groups. This time they argued that the lines were racially gerrymandered. In their 64-page opinion, the judges rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the map included districts that violated the 14th Amendment because race was the predominant factor in their drawing. There was no evidence that race played a part in the disputed district lines, the judges wrote.

“Having found no statutory or constitutional infirmities in the map adopted in SB 927,” the court said, “our involvement in the current disputes over Illinois redistricting must come to an end.”  

The court did say that “the voluminous evidence submitted by the parties overwhelmingly establishes that the Illinois mapmakers were motivated principally by partisan political considerations.” 

Critics, including the nonpartisan government watchdog group, Common Cause Illinois, frequently decried the partisan process Democrats used to draw the new map. “At each opportunity in this redistricting process, it’s as if lawmakers went out of their way to ensure the creation of these maps had as little public input as possible,” said Jay Young, the group’s executive director.

“Rejecting an independent bipartisan redistricting commission, politicians chose to draw maps themselves,” he said. “They did so behind closed doors, with a series of hearings attempting to add a veneer of public access. Yet, these hearings were consistently hastily scheduled, poorly noticed to the general public, and sparsely attended.”  

In their ruling, the judges also argued that independent maps “are matters for the people of Illinois to continue debating. Levers other than federal courts are available to them, whether they are state statutes, state constitutions, and even entreaties to Congress, if they wish to change the current process. … Our role does not extend to complaints about excessive partisanship in the drawing of legislative districts.”

Change hasn’t come easily. Past campaigns by Illinois residents and government advocacy groups, such as Change Illinois, to change the process have failed to survive court challenges. The judges referenced, for example, the 2016 effort to put an amendment creating an independent redistricting commission on the ballot. The Illinois Supreme Court tossed out that citizen initiative, arguing that the more than half a million Illinois voters who signed petitions to create the commission had exceeded their constitutional authority to do so.

In response to the latest ruling, some fair map advocates have said they are not going away.

“This ruling is a disappointment, but that does not mean we will ever stop fighting for independent maps in Illinois,” said Illinois Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie. 

“It didn’t have to be this way,” the Hawthorn Woods senator said. “Gov. (J.B.) Pritzker could have kept his promise to support independent redistricting, but instead signed a map that was ruled unconstitutional and another that was opposed by voting rights groups throughout Illinois. Gov. Pritzker and his Democratic allies have made their allegiance clear: They are more committed to protecting the same political insiders who have been wrecking our state for decades than defending voting rights in Illinois.”

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