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Will Pritzker stop gerrymandering?

January 31, 2019

Illinois House Republicans are out with an independent mapmaking plan. And Gov. J.B. Pritzker is on the record saying he’ll reject a legislative map drawn under political influence. The 2020 census is just around the corner, after which Illinois must redraw its district lines.

Could the next decade of Illinois politics take shape on a fair map?

One man stands in the way. And Illinoisans who have followed state government for more than a day can guess who that is.

House Speaker Mike Madigan for decades has drawn political maps to protect partisan allies and punish others. But if enough of his caucus members side with Pritzker, there could be a shot at the most reasonable map in a generation.

Madigan has made his career drawing maps. Three of them specifically, following the 1980, 2000 and 2010 censuses. His first map was the main reason he was able to ascend to the speakership. The next two kept him there. Republicans drew the map in the 1990s, which helped them take over Madigan’s House for two short years.

Both parties play this game.

But Pritzker made a pledge to voters. On the campaign trail last year, he said he would veto any map that is “drafted or created by legislators, political party leaders and/or their staffs or allies.” Sounds like another Madigan map wouldn’t make the cut.

The House Republicans came out with a plan this week that they say would provide independent mapmaking, even though legislative leaders would have a voice in selecting the mapmaking commission. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than the status quo. And a constitutional amendment would be the best way to go about long-lasting redistricting reform.

Unfortunately, the political numbers don’t seem to add up. It will be very difficult to get the supermajority necessary to take mapmaking power out of political hands via a constitutional amendment, to say the least.

But there doesn’t necessarily have to be a constitutional amendment to stop gerrymandering. That’s where Pritzker comes in.

All the Illinois Constitution mandates is that a new map is passed into law by June 30, 2021. The General Assembly approves the map and the governor signs it, with a backup plan if there isn’t an agreement by the June 30 deadline. Beyond that, there’s plenty of wiggle room.

Take these two scenarios.

In the first scenario, House and Senate Democrats pass a heavily partisan map to Pritzker’s desk on supermajority votes. Pritzker vetoes the bill, keeping his promise. Democrats — still with supermajority control — override Pritzker and the highly partisan map goes into effect.

Editorial boards and good government groups would rightfully cry bloody murder. But Madigan would get his map for the next 10 years. And Pritzker might have kept his promise in spirit. But voters might not see it that way.

Here’s another hypothetical.

Pritzker assembles an independent commission to draw an alternative to Madigan’s map. Plenty of academics and civic groups, such as the Brennan Center for Justice, have put together best practices for making such a commission. Madigan still draws his map. But because of Illinois’ constitutional backup plan if the General Assembly and governor can’t agree on district lines, the speaker must play his cards very carefully.

In this scenario, Madigan could get enough votes to send his map to Pritzker’s desk. But if Pritzker picks off enough override votes by presenting a viable alternative to a hyperpartisan map, Madigan is faced with a choice: He can pass Pritzker’s independent map or sit on his hands. If he sits on his hands, which party draws the map essentially comes down to a coin flip.

Democrats have won three of the last four occasions in the last 40 years. But the chance still is 50-50. So which is worse for Madigan? A 100 percent chance of an independent map or a 50 percent chance of a Republican map? Maybe he goes with Option A: certainty.

Time will tell whether either of these scenarios play out.

And in fact, state lawmakers might not even be the right men and women for the job.

The Illinois Supreme Court has left a narrow window open for a final option — a constitutional amendment initiated by citizens. Madigan’s lawyers have kicked off citizen-led referenda on fair maps twice before. Reform groups could mount another ballot initiative campaign tailored to avoid the same fate. But that’s a tough call after being burned twice before.

In the end, redistricting reform could come under the dome in Springfield or by clipboards and signatures on street corners. Either way, those efforts are only helped by the governor holding on to his campaign promise.

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