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Party politics sure to defeat ‘fair’ legislative maps no matter who draws the lines now

Illinois’ missed its real chance to reform the mapping process a year ago when the Legislature blew a deadline, intentionally, to put a referendum for a better way on the Nov. 3 ballot.

The Illinois State Capitol
AP file photo

Newly drawn legislative maps for the Illinois House and Senate, revealed in the news hush of a Friday evening, reflect no one’s dream of political independence and transparency.

But Illinois’ missed its real chance to reform the mapping process a year ago when the Legislature blew a deadline, intentionally, to put a referendum for a better way on the Nov. 3 ballot.

That left it to the politicians to draw the maps, as always, and Democratic lawmakers have the votes to control the whole process. They also have a governor who undoubtedly will approve their handiwork.

That the Democrats would draw maps that skew in favor of their party’s candidates is as unsurprising as summer construction on Illinois roads. But we’re not convinced that the alternative at this late stage — rejecting the Democratic map in favor of a luck of the draw that might result in an equally gerrymandered Republican map — is any better. Partisan is partisan.

Drawing new maps is a complicated and often secretive process but it has real consequences for the average Illinois resident. The maps help determine who is elected, and those who are elected decide how much money will be spent on education, transportation, public safety and other priorities.

The maps released on Friday by the Democrats are sure to shape state politics for the next decade by influencing who will win the 59 seats in the state Senate and 118 seats in the House. The Democrats have not yet drawn up boundaries for the 17 U.S. House seats Illinois will have after the next election.

In the view of the Democrats’ mapmakers, they have reached out in the past for Republican input, only to be sued anyway. They also claim their latest maps do a dandy job of protecting the interests of different geographic and racial groups, which just happens to benefit them politically.

Republicans, for their part, are demanding that the state wait to draw the maps until final U.S. census numbers become available, which might just happen to give them a chance to wrest control of the process.

Democrats in Springfield are pushing to get the maps approved and enacted into law by June 30, a deadline set by the state Constitution. That effectively imposes a deadline of May 31 for the Legislature — the last day of their spring legislative session.

If the maps aren’t approved by then, the Constitution requires that the process be handed over to a commission made up of four Democrats and four Republicans. Then, if the commission can’t reach agreement, a ninth name is drawn out of a hat, giving each party a 50% chance of having the deciding vote on any new maps. This assumes the Illinois Supreme Court would follow the past practice of appointing a politician from each party to be the potential ninth vote.

Once the proposed legislative maps go to court, in response to lawsuits, the Democrats may agree to minor boundary changes before the maps are set in stone, at least for the 2022 elections. Meanwhile, there’s a chance next year’s March primary elections will be rescheduled to a later date so that the mapmakers can use still-unavailable final census numbers to draw the congressional maps.

Illinois is not heading to a rerun of 1964, when the mapmaking process broke down so badly that voters were forced to select 177 candidates running statewide from among 236 names.

But, as usual, Illinois’ new maps are likely to remain severely gerrymandered, however “fair” Democrats claim it will be for minority representation.

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