Illinois’ Gerrymandered Congressional Map Is a Window Into America’s Political Dysfunction

October 19, 2021   |   Tags: ,
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The proposed plan for redrawing Illinois' congressional districts is a total mess.

State lawmakers were tasked with the once-per-decade redistricting, and the Democrats who control the state government produced a map that is both wildly partisan and wildly gerrymandered. One proposed district is a sweeping crescent from the middle of the state west to the Mississippi River and then north to the Wisconsin border. Another is a jagged gash running from the Illinois suburbs of St. Louis nearly to the Indiana border, capturing a handful of the small, blue-leaning cities dotting the more rural part of the state. Parts of 10 different districts slice through Chicago and its suburbs

Overall, the map has been given a grade of "F" by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which grades congressional maps on partisan fairness, geographical compactness, and other factors.

Democrats in Illinois are concentrated in Chicago, its suburbs, and a handful of other places around the state. Drawing lots of thin tentacles—or "baconmanders" as they have been called—through Chicagoland maximizes Democrats' chances of winning 50 percent-plus-one in as many districts as possible. The Princeton Gerrymandering Project says the new map would give Democrats a statistical edge in 14 of the 17 proposed districts. Elections aren't won and lost on paper, of course, but that's a pretty nice edge considering the state's current congressional delegation is 13 Democrats and five Republicans (Illinois is losing one seat because people are fleeing the state).

The Illinois map should also put an end to the ridiculous claim that only Republicans engage in gerrymandering—a claim that's even been advanced by The New York Times recently. Republicans engaged in some of the most egregious gerrymandering during the 2011 redistricting process, but that was mostly a function of their outsized control of state capitals at the time. It's also true that Democratic gerrymanders are a bit harder to pull off since the party's current political coalition tends to be concentrated in cities and thus easy targets for "packing" into deep blue vote sinks. But, as Democrats demonstrated in Maryland in 2011 and Illinois this year, gerrymandering is definitely a bipartisan enterprise.

The flip side of gerrymandering as many winnable districts as possible for Democratic candidates, however, is that you have to pack as many Republican voters as possible into those three other districts. By cutting places like Bloomington, Champagne, Decatur, and Peoria out of their surrounding, redder areas, Democrats have created some serious vote sinks where Republicans make up more than 65 percent of the population.

Instead of a reddish-purple downstate, you've got that ragged blue scar and a bunch of districts where the Republican primary election will effectively decide who goes to Congress. And when primary elections have more significance than general elections, it gives more power to a party's base.

Obviously, Illinois Democrats have no obligation to draw districts that will help more moderate Republicans get elected. But that doesn't change the fact that these proposed districts will continue to push our federal politics towards the fringe. Gerrymandering not only reduces voters' connection to their elected officials and gives everyone another reason to roll their eyes at democracy. It also contributes to—and, circularly, is driven by—the hyperpartisanship that defines American politics right now. Efforts to "fix" redistricting are imperfect at best, but attempts to make the process even marginally more legitimate in the eyes of the public should be taken seriously.

These are not merely theoretical exercises. One of the big losers in the Illinois redistricting plan is Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R–Ill.), a moderate Republican who voted to impeach former President Donald Trump over his role in the January 6 riot. Kinzinger is already facing a pro-Trump primary challenger, and the former president has promised to support efforts to replace Republicans who voted for impeachment.

But the Democrats did Trump's work for him. Kinzinger's district, which currently covers a wide swath of the Chicago exurbs, would be demolished on the proposed new map. Now, Kinzinger will be forced into the new 3rd Congressional District along with incumbent Rep. Marie Newman (D–Ill.). To give you an idea of how extreme the proposed redrawing of Illinois' district lines is, consider this: Kinzinger's and Newman's districts didn't even share a border for the past 10 years. Now the two members of Congress share the same borders.

Newman isn't thrilled about the outcome. The new district, which stretches from the edge of Chicago and reaches halfway to the Iowa border, is "not only retrogressive but substantially diminishes the diverse and progressive voices of Chicago's Southwest Side and suburbs," she told Politico.

The proposed new district is 54 percent Democratic, according to the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, so it's not out of the question that a Republican could win it in a strong year. But Kinzinger is now facing political headwinds from every direction. In a statement, he said he's considering "all the options, including those outside the House," suggesting that he could retire or perhaps run for a different office.

Kinzinger is the type of Republican that's in short supply these days. But that's hardly enough to save him from the brutal reality of redistricting. In Illinois, at least, the redrawing of district lines is looking like a victory for Democrats, and an unexpected gift for the Trumpified Republican base.


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