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In Illinois, get redistricting and the 2020 Census right

Filling out the 2010 census form. | PHOTO COURTESY/U.S. CENSUS BUREAU

You could practically hear the air deflating from a balloon after the U.S. Supreme Court punted on two gerrymandering cases this week. The rulings were a major letdown on the national stage.

Lucky for us here in Illinois, there is no pending litigation. In fact, the Supreme Court had already become sideshow. What really matters in Illinois is 2020. Before you say that’s years away, let me remind you that June is almost over, and by the time you figure out how to get your AC working properly, September will be gone. So, the work starts — on two fronts — now.

OPINION

The first fight is getting a constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot. This initiative failed last spring, despite support from good government groups, including the Better Government Association’s policy team. The good news is that there was and is a growing cry for fair maps across the state. Candidates for November’s election are being asked to take a side, a clear side, and we hope voters hold them to their commitments. Given the Supreme Court’s apparent shrug, here and across the country independent maps will not be drawn until popular sentiment forces a change

But, the truth is no maps from any process will be accurate if the underlying numbers aren’t right. That’s why the second fight is the 2020 Census. In that fight, there is already a lot going wrong. Much attention in the media has been focused on whether the survey should ask if you are a citizen. It’s a messy, partisan issue, which could depress response rates, and it’s only one — albeit big — problem of the many the Census Bureau is facing, including budget shortfalls, a plan to update technology that is severely lagging, and an unprecedented level of reliance on administrative records, like IRS returns, to support the census rollout and potentially supplement responses.

Thankfully, in Illinois, some things are going right. The 2019 budget includes $1.5 million for outreach and education in the lead up to the Census. Last summer, Springfield also created a complete count commission. It was the first state legislature to take this step — one that is supported by the Census Bureau. The commission is required to report on its outreach strategy in November. Last week, state representatives, Cook County commissioners and Chicago aldermen came together with non-governmental advocates and service providers to begin talking about how to make sure everyone is counted.

The Census serves as the basis for practically everything — from Medicaid, homeland security, and unemployment insurance dollars to transportation planning — so an accurate count is critical for anyone who cares about getting fair government representation or how their tax dollars are being spent. Here in Illinois, the 2020 Census is a particularly sensitive one. Due to population changes, Illinois is likely to lose at least one congressional seat. A low response rate in the state will not just hurt any chance of an accurate and fair map, it also will further risk Illinois’ influence on the national stage.

It’s summer. Sit by the lake, read a bad book, barbecue, zone out. But as you are flipping patties, take a moment to think about how you can get engaged — either by telling your state representatives you demand a fair map, or by asking the groups you volunteer with and give money to how they are planning to support the Census. 2020 is around the corner and we have to be ready.

Rachel Leven is the policy manager for the Better Government Association.Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.