Days ago, Stacey Abrams spoke to a crowded ballroom at a Chicago Foundation for Women event. “When you break democracy for anyone, you break it for everyone,” she said.
The irony was palpable. Abrams spoke of the Prairie State as a place where voting rights are upheld and elections are fairly handled. And policymakers here can claim some of the strongest voting-access laws in the country.
But in reality, representative government in Illinois is broken.
Though the state’s nearly 13 million residents can cast a ballot easily enough, manipulation of electoral maps by a Democratic Party obsessed with maintaining its stranglehold on power deprives them of meaningful choice on those ballots. When maps are rigged, it deters challengers and leaves more incumbents uncontested. That, in turn, discourages voters from turning out — and means that even when they do, the outcome is a foregone conclusion.
When campaigning for governor, J. B. Pritzker promised that if elected, he’d put an end to this state of affairs. He pledged to veto any plan drawn up by lawmakers and political-party leaders rather than an independent redistricting commission. Yet in June, he signed into law maps drawn by Democrats in the state legislature without any Republican participation. And three weeks ago, after those maps were challenged in court and it became apparent that they wouldn’t pass constitutional muster, the legislature approved revisions to them, which Pritzker is expected to sign off on soon.
The redistricting process has provoked criticism from an unusually broad array of advocacy groups. The objections of the state GOP were, of course, to be expected. But one of the lawsuits against the legislature was filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which claims that the lawmaker-drawn maps would weaken the influence of Latino voters. And North Lawndale Alliance co-founder Valerie Leonard similarly complained to NPR that the legislature’s plan “dilutes Black voting power to the hilt.”
All of this controversy could have been avoided if the legislature had amended the state constitution to take redistricting out of the hands of lawmakers and put it in the hands of an independent redistricting commission, as 15 other states around the country have done. But instead, a state that touts strong ballot-access laws gave its voters fewer choices to make at the polls. The new legislative maps pit incumbents from the minority party against one another while raising the odds that incumbents in the majority will face little or no meaningful opposition when they seek to retain their seats.
According to the Illinois State Board of Elections, about half of all statehouse races were uncontested between 2012 and 2020, while the old maps remained in effect. That meant that nearly 5 million voting-age residents lived in districts which gave them no choice at the polls. And research from the Illinois Policy Institute shows voter participation to be seven percentage points lower on average when only one candidate is on the ballot. Because low voter participation tends to be most common in low-income areas, this means that the interests and policy preferences of low-income residents — those who depend on public services the most — are particularly ill-served by Illinois Democrats’ partisan gerrymandering. To take just one example, from fiscal year 2000 to fiscal year 2021, state spending on pensions for government workers skyrocketed by 533 percent, while spending on a range of core government services such as public-health and anti-poverty programs dropped by 14 percent.
In Illinois as everywhere else, the purpose of gerrymandering is to establish an unfair political advantage for one party by manipulating the boundaries of electoral districts. Through such manipulation, the democratic process is upended to allow politicians to pick their voters, rather than the other way around. This is a serious problem, because the efficacy of representative government rests on accountability: The people have to be able to fire their leaders when they see fit.
And in Illinois, so long as Democrats control the redistricting process, that kind of accountability won’t be in the cards.