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Democrats offer new legislative district boundary maps in effort to control Illinois General Assembly for another decade

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Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
 2021-05-22
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The Illinois State Capitol building on May 20, 2020, in Springfield. Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune

Illinois Democrats on Friday evening gave the public its first look at their proposed maps containing new boundary lines for Illinois’ 118 state House and 59 state Senate districts that would be in place for the next decade starting with primary elections in March.

Facing a June 30 deadline to produce and enact the maps, or give Republicans a 50-50 chance at drawing the new boundary lines, Democrats will seek to act quickly in hearings scheduled for next week to advance their redistricting plans by the scheduled end-of-May adjournment date.

Since Republicans count as a superminority in the legislature and Democrat J.B. Pritzker is in the governor’s office, the GOP is largely shut out of the mapmaking process as occurred a decade ago. Those Democratic maps produced Democratic majorities of 73-45 in the House , 41-18 in the Senate .

Democrats have held control of the Illinois House since 1997 after overcoming the effects of a Republican-drawn redistricting map. Democrats have controlled the Senate since 2003.

The actual detailed effects of the new boundary lines may not be known for several days as Republicans go through the details along with various voting rights groups, and ethnic and racial civil rights groups to ensure the new boundaries follow federal and state protections for traditionally underrepresented minorities.

With fewer than 10 days to go until the scheduled end of the spring legislative session, the release of the maps appears to run counter to Democratic commitments of full transparency and an effort to have the new boundary lines on display for public review for at least two weeks before a final vote. Instead, four legislative hearings are planned during the General Assembly’s final week — two on Tuesday and two on Wednesday — before an expected vote is taken.

Regardless, the new boundaries are likely to be subject to court challenges — in large part because Democrats wanting to avoid the map-drawing lottery set in motion by missing a June 30 deadline opted to use population estimates rather than actual federal census figures. The more specific census details, traditionally used in drawing political maps, were delayed by the pandemic and won’t be available until mid-August at the earliest.

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Several groups already have identified the use of population estimates as a potentially fatal flaw in efforts to determine that ethnic and racial groups are not underrepresented. But those groups also have said Illinois’ early election calendar for next year could make court challenges difficult.

Candidates for the March Democratic and Republican primary elections can begin soliciting candidacy petitions to appear on the ballot at the end of August.

The release of the map boundaries meant Democrats, for the first time, confirmed their use of data from the American Community Survey, a product of the federal Census Bureau that samples fewer households to examine trends than the actual count of the federal census.

The ACS is an ongoing survey process in which about 3.5 million households are asked for information, in contrast to the actual census, which is supposed to count all U.S. households. In comparing 2010 ACS figures with actual 2010 census results, groups sometimes have found wide variances, with the survey over-counting some larger communities by double-digit percentages, and undercounting some smaller cities and towns also by double-digit percentages.

Democrats said the ACS five-year estimate for 2019, “in addition to robust public input,” was satisfactory and was off just 0.3% from the state’s official population count released by the U.S. Census Bureau in April. The ACS five-year estimated population for Illinois was 12,770,631 while the actual federal census figure was 12,812,508.

Nothing in the state constitution requires the use of hard census data for the mapmaking process. But a coalition of diverse groups said Friday night that basing the boundaries on a survey that undercounted the state’s actual population by 41,877 people was equivalent to “excluding cities the size of Oak Park, Buffalo Grove, Quincy, or Rock Island.”

“The decisions by our current lawmakers will disenfranchise tens of thousands of voices for a decade by creating representative maps that do not include them. How is this equity for Illinois? We owe it to the people of this state and the community organizations that overcame incredible challenges to ensure an accurate census count to wait for the census results,” the coalition said in a statement.

Groups in the coalition include Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago, Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, the Latino Policy Forum, the Blackroots Alliance, and the state and Cook County Black Chambers of Commerce, the NAACP South Side Branch, the Illinois Muslim Civic Coalition, Common Cause Illinois, the League of Women Voters of Illinois and Chicago, the Better Government Association and CHANGE Illinois, an organization that has long sought an independent mapmaking process.

Democrats chairing separate House and Senate redistricting panels contended their map boundaries met all federal and state voting rights standards.

“This proposed map amplifies the diverse voices of the people of Illinois, allows communities to be represented by people of their choice and ensures that every person in our state has a say in their government,” Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez, the Cicero Democrat who chairs the House remap panel, said in a statement.

Republicans, however, contended Democrats under new House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch had reverted to the ways of embattled former Speaker Michael Madigan by resorting to a Friday night “map dump,” when little of the public was paying attention, to release boundary lines aimed at preserving Democratic control of the legislature.

Friday night’s “drop of partisan maps is yet another attempt to mislead voters in an effort to block fair elections after so many promises made by Democrats to have an open and transparent process involving the public,” said state Rep. Tim Butler of Springfield, the ranking Republican on the House remap panel.

Butler and other Republicans called on Pritzker to follow through on a campaign pledge to veto a partisan-drawn map. Pritzker, who had supported an independent commission to take much of the politics out of the mapmaking process, has since modified his position to say only that he would veto an “unfair” map.

The maps indicate an effort to stretch districts south and southwest out of Chicago in an effort to preserve majority Black legislative districts, despite an anticipated loss in the city’s Black population. The maps also show efforts to try to needle through once Republican suburban areas to maintain recent Democratic gains. At the same time, many Downstate districts in Republican areas appeared to have gained territory as a result of expected population losses there.

The Democrats’ release of maps did not include a new set of boundaries for the state’s congressional districts. Democrats currently have a 13-5 edge over Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation, but the number of members is set to fall to 17 next year. That makes it likely Democrats at the least will try to preserve their current 13 seats at the expense of Republicans.

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