In Illinois, we know all about the bad stuff that comes with gerrymandering.
Look no further than the fact that Michael J. Madigan has been speaker of the Illinois House since before a lot of people reading this sentence were born — since 1983, to be specific, with a two-year break.
Now, happily, a major new effort is being launched on a national level to end gerrymandering, which is the practice of state legislatures drawing voting district boundaries to guarantee election results in their favor. But the national effort seems somewhat focused on the evils of gerrymandering by Republicans, given that so many red states — just get a load of Texas — have really gone to town with gerrymandering to kill fair elections.
So allow us here in Illinois, where gerrymandering has risen to a fine art, to make two essential points: It really is at the heart of the destructive polarization in our politics. When elections are not competitive, people run to their ideological corners. And, given the chance, blue-state Democrats are every bit as eager to play the game.
Gerrymandering has been with us since the early days of the Republic, but recent technological advances have made it much more pernicious. In gerrymandered Michigan, for example, Democratic candidates for the state House of Representatives together won about 18,000 more votes in November than the Republicans did, yet the GOP wound up with a 63-47 majority.
How is that right or fair?
On one front, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday announced he is leading a new national effort to end Republican national dominance in gerrymandering. He will hold his group’s first fundraiser this spring in Chicago.
The initiative, backed by President Barack Obama, wouldn’t end gerrymandering but could neutralize its effects by restoring some balance between the parties. According to the New York Times, Obama met last week with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to discuss how to restore balance to the congressional map.
On the second front, a federal court in Wisconsin last year tossed out the state’s legislative maps because they were overly gerrymandered to help Republicans. If the U.S. Supreme Court decides excessive gerrymandering violates the principle of “one person, one vote,” that could change the political landscape as well.
States in which one political party has full political control will be able to redraw their own voting district maps after the 2020 census, and presumably they will do so to their advantage. Now, the GOP controls both the legislatures and governor’s office in 25 states, compared with just six for the Democrats.
Most states allow legislatures and governors to draw voting maps, though some use independent commissions to try to negate the effect of gerrymandering. Efforts to create an independent commission in Illinois have been shot down by the courts, most recently last year.
Here’s hoping they keep trying.