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Q&A: How Does Illinois' Political Remapping Process Fare Compared To Other States?

Illinois Democrats have pushed through new state legislative maps for the upcoming decade, to the chagrin of Republicans who wanted a commission process giving them a louder voice.

So how do other states do remapping differently - and is Illinois an outlier?

Tim Shelley speaks with the National Conference of State Legislatures' Wendy Underhill.

TIM SHELLEY: It is redistricting time. And I know many states are going through this right now. And Illinois just recently came out with their maps. The governor just approved those maps. There's been some accusations of partisanship as they were drawn by a Democratic-controlled legislature and signed into law by a Democratic governor. I know, there's been different experiences across the country, though. Can you give me kind of an overview of how that process is kind of playing out this time around?

WENDY UNDERHILL: One thing I'll offer is that Illinois is very much at the front edge of the wave of states doing redistricting. Most states are waiting until August, September into the fall, even the beginning of the 2022 sessions to do redistricting. And each state makes its decision about when to do it based on what's in their state constitution primarily this year, because the data from the census is being delayed. That's why some states are a little behind. But Illinois had a particular situation with its constitution, and therefore it went earlier with a different set of data than some of the other states are waiting for.

TIM SHELLEY: And I believe that was the American Community Survey data, which some have said is perhaps less reliable than the than the official census data.

WENDY UNDERHILL: Well, I think this year is such an unusual one. Because last year was such an unusual one, because COVID. So everything that we've known to be the way it's done, standard operating procedure is under under question, and states are figuring out what they need to do. I did say Illinois at the front end, but it's not the at the very first. Oklahoma has also have maps drawn and passed in a similar kind of a way. I'm mostly seeing states are holding off on it until just a little bit down the down the path.

TIM SHELLEY: One thing is that Illinois does have kind of a political process where if a party has supermajorities, as the Democrats in this case, and other states have a Republican trifecta, so to speak. But, I mean, it is a pretty, fairly partisan process. If you could talk a little bit about how Illinois system maybe compares to some others that have gone to the independent commission format that some other states have decided to shift to.

WENDY UNDERHILL: Sure. The normal process is for legislators to do redistricting in the way that Illinois does it. So Illinois is in is with the bulk of states and doing it in the legislature. And then sure enough, who is in control of the House, who is in control of the Senate, who is in control of the governor? See, those all matter a great deal in that universe. But, and you're right, that there are states that are moving towards systems that are based on conditions during the work instead of the legislature, but each one has its own flavor.

And to use the word independent or nonpartisan usually doesn't work for these conditions, because there's some tie back into the legislature or some amount of politics built into it. And I'm not in any way saying that these systems aren't good systems. I'm just saying there's 50 ways to get the project done. And each state takes its own approach to it. And to try to say that any of them have no politics would be a bit of a stretch.

So if you'd like I can talk to us a little bit more about some of the flavors that we're seeing out there.


WENDY UNDERHILL: Okay, so, some of these conditions are us members who were appointed by legislative leaders. That's a pretty common system, mostly in the '80s and '90s. assistance of that nature, were developed either of the four key players, that would be the senate president, the Senate Minority Leader, the Speaker of the House, and the House Minority Leader, appoint one or two members to a committee. And then there might be any tie breaking vote. Maybe not depends on which state you're talking about. So that's pretty normal. And depending on what that tie breaking vote looks like. It either built in bipartisanship or you could still end up with a situation where the dominant party dominates redistricting as well.

And then, more modern ones have tried to build in all kinds of Rube Goldberg-like approaches to ensuring the independence of the members. And California might be an example of that from the last decade and Colorado has gone that way. Michigan has gone that way, this year. And they've included some amount of randomness for who can serve on the committees, and that they may also have some requirements that the people who serve on the Commissions are data-friendly people [who] understand analysis, have some understanding of the public process, but also requirements that members of the those Commissions not have strong ties to the parties. Now, it's in the eye of the beholder. What's a strong tie? What isn't? But at any rate, that's kind of a approach that some states are trying.

We don't have a lot of data on how well one system works as compared to another at the moment, if you want all legislatures who do redistricting, and all commissions to do redistricting. And you compare how they did in the courts, whether the courts proved their naps or not, they work out about the same, maybe the legislature having a slight edge. So I'm not sure that that tells the whole story about it. But it does say that it's very hard to take this complex topic that overlays data with politics with people and tries to have a linear, like to envision things for the next 10 years. It's pretty complex to get those maps to be so that they meet everybody's needs. And maybe at the end of the day, if nobody's quite happy with the maps, that might be an indicator that you were somehow down the middle.

TIM SHELLEY: And I guess that kind of [goes] into my next point. So Republicans in Illinois say this was a very partisan process. Democrats say this reflects kind of the the racial diversity and, you know, geographic diversity of the states and in defending the maps that were drawn up, I guess my question would be, in terms of the ones that use independent versus legislature, is there a certain method you would say that gets kind of closer to that compromise area, I'd say where everyone feels like, I might not have gotten everything I wanted, but it's it's fair enough to work?

WENDY UNDERHILL: I'm not sure. But there isn't one system that seems to be better than another. And I will say that every state's politics is so dramatically different. And every state's demography is so dramatically different. It's not uncommon, of course, like in Illinois, where one great big city dominates in terms of population, that that would be even true. If you're looking at small state that there's usually going to be one city that dominates.

So in a lot of it is sort of, where are people clustered? And how has the change and how people are clustered over the last 10 years that changed? And who's new in your state. So every single state has to kind of figure that out demographics change, and therefore the districts must change.

Why do we do redistricting? Can I just say that we get redistricting, because population changes over time between the states, but then it moves within the states. And if you didn't rebalance, so that you have districts with equal population, you would end up in a situation like we had in the 1960's in Tennessee, where a rural voter could have 19 times as much power relative to the legislature as an urban voter.

So over time, as people leave rural areas and move to urban areas, their little share of the vote in the state capitol needs to go with them. So it's all about equal population districts, even though the geography of the districts changes from one decade to the next.

TIM SHELLEY: And one interesting decision that Illinois made is even though the state constitution says those state legislative districts need to be drawn by midsummer, the congressional districts, they're waiting later on those so.

And that's for some members of Congress who might be weighing a run for a different office, they're kind of waiting to see, you know, what's my district going to look like before I make this decision? So are we seeing that kind of effect across the country where maybe that's playing into kind of the wider politics?

WENDY UNDERHILL: You make a really good point, we talked about redistricting as if it's one thing. In fact, the states are redistricting for congressional districts, and the redistricting for their state house and state senate districts and the rules can and often are.

What's different for the two sets of districts being created by the states and the legislatures? So in your case, you can wait on the congressional ones because you don't have a constitutional requirement. So again, it's this interesting interplay between the legal landscape of the state and what's going on otherwise. And I guess in that case, then you've got a little more time to probably wait for the official data to come that is specific to every nook and cranny of Illinois, come August 16.

And then when you're talking about congressional districts, there's another thing that sort of strikes me and that's that, in building those districts, it's an opportunity for the state to really ask for the attention of their congressional delegation. It's an opportunity for some very close state/federal communications, because of course, those congressional members do have a stake in how they're drawn, but they don't have a place at the table, it is the state's responsibility to draw those districts.

TIM SHELLEY: Wendy, anything else you'd want to add anything that people [should] know, [what they] often maybe don't understand about redistricting that you think they should understand, or they should know about?

WENDY UNDERHILL: I guess I'd say that voting is something that we all agree everyone needs to be paying attention to and participating in. And when it was time for the census, in 2020, it was important that every single person get out and be counted. And I guess with redistricting, it is much more arcane than either of those two things. And we're not dependent on every person participating and caring how it works.

At the same time, there are groups in the community that care a lot about how the lines are drawn and want to be able to identify what they think of as their official phrases community of interest is. And that means that hearing those voices is important, and I believe Illinois did do many hearings around the state, hopefully hearing from those kinds of groups.

And I just offer that public input, even though if it's not every voter, every citizen, every human speaking to the process, it is important to allow those who care to be heard. And it seems like there were quite a number of opportunities for that in Illinois, and I'm looking at other states to see how they do their public input processes. And they may even who knows to be learning from Illinois, perhaps.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.