In private mapmaking sessions, Illinois’ all-powerful Democratic majority in 2021 used the state’s population loss to swell Democratic districts — adding one Hispanic-majority blue seat in Congress and forcing two Republicans out of their districts.
Among those who either opted out of their congressional districts — or lost — because of those behind-the-scenes decisions: Marie Newman, a freshman Democrat, and downstate Republican Rodney Davis.
Federal law gives each state’s legislature initial congressional redistricting powers. And the Illinois Constitution requires that state lawmakers redistrict every 10 years — the year after a U.S. Census is taken.
The goal is to ensure all Illinois residents are afforded equal representation in the state General Assembly and in Congress. But the maps Democrats approved in 2021 also sealed in their political power for a decade.
They also marked the first redistricting cycle since the 2019 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gerrymandering for party advantage could not be challenged in federal court.
Each district must be “compact, contiguous and substantially equal in population,” the Illinois Constitution states. They must also follow the federal Voting Rights Act, which protects minority representation, and the Illinois Voting Rights Act, which works to ensure minorities are given the opportunity to participate in the electoral process. Both the Illinois Senate and House must approve a plan, which then goes to the governor for approval.
But since 1970, when the Illinois Constitution was ratified, the power of redistricting was left to commissions when lawmakers couldn’t agree on a plan.
In three out of the four times the state has used a commission to iron out maps, commissioners had to resort to tie-breakers.
What followed was a less quaint version of a Harry Potter sorting hat.
When the commission couldn’t agree on a new map, the state’s Supreme Court designated someone from the state’s Republican Party and another person from the Democratic Party to appear before the Illinois Secretary of State, who would then randomly choose one of those people to serve as the tie-breaking member on the commission.
The name of the tiebreaking commissioner was selected by pulling a name from a replica of Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hat. The complex process was enacted to encourage parties to compromise on the remap.
It’s no wonder voters feel out of the loop about the state’s redistricting process — which has led to the entrenchment of incumbents and in some cases, low voter turnout.
The Chicago Sun-Times, WBEZ and the University of Chicago are examining the challenges to American democracy as part of the Democracy Solutions Project. The state’s redistricting ritual — largely carried out behind closed doors — most recently led two downstate districts to elect more extreme candidates while protecting and enhancing Democratic powers in other areas of the state.
And while the dust settles on the last remap, there are already advocates plotting the 2030 map and pushing for reform.
‘Purposefully a mystery’
Marie Newman was championed by progressive Democrats for beating one of the last congressional Democrats to oppose abortion rights: U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski. But two years later, Democrats paved a very difficult path for her to win reelection.
An early map pitted Newman against U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, but the final version protected Casten by putting him in his own safe district — after political allies came to his rescue.
Ultimately, the map shifted Newman into the same district as fellow Democrat Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a decision she immediately lambasted. Just hours after the maps were released, Newman announced she would instead be running in the new 6th District against Casten.
Casten, who said he “never wanted to see friends run against friends” ultimately defeated Newman 67.7% to 29.2%.
The map approved by Democrats in the Illinois General Assembly, and signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, prioritized creating a second Latino-majority district in Illinois over pitting two Democratic incumbents — Newman and Casten — against each other. It also created a deep blue seat by connecting parts of two southern Illinois districts.
U.S. Rep. Mary Miller, also a staunch Trump loyalist, saw her district split in two, and opted to run against U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis over U.S. Rep. Mike Bost. Miller defeated Davis 57.4% to 42.6% — leaving the southern Illinois district with a member of the right-wing Freedom Caucus.
Newman, now CEO of Little City, a nonprofit serving children and adults with disabilities, still has plenty of questions about what happened in the remap.
“It purposefully is a mystery,” Newman told the Sun-Times. “There’s just no clarity on the process. And I think that should be something that is very regulated.”
Newman said she decided to run for the 6th District because she felt she was still “highly aligned” with the district. And she called the “shining star” of the redistricting process the creation of the 3rd Congressional District, the state’s second Latino majority district, which ultimately elected Rep. Delia Ramirez, a fellow progressive.
But Newman is still miffed about the process — and never received any answers from lawmakers about why they came to their conclusions. She doesn’t see a great solution in other states that have turned to the creation of independent commissions as a remedy.
“In the spirit of democracy, I wish that it was a fully transparent process, with very specific steps written down, agreed upon by the state legislature and then executed by a body, whether it is an independent commission or a commission made up of all parties and all representation and then have geographic representation across the state,” Newman said.
“…I can’t go back in history and say, ‘Oh gosh, something was unfair.’ Because there’s nothing documented, right? So I can’t even assess if it was fair or unfair,” Newman continued. “But moving forwards, my hope is that we have a much fairer process so that it’s fair to voters and to the candidates.”
Hispanic, Asian populations rise
The redistricting process starts with staffers who meet with lawmakers, some of whom make specific requests like having a family member’s school included in their district — or wanting to have their childhood Little League field or church in their district. They don’t always get their way.
Illinois Senate and House members then meet to hash out their desired lines.
Though remap decisions are made by lawmakers, there is a public hearing process. In 2021, the Illinois House held 30 virtual and in-person public meetings across the state, even though state law requires just four. In contrast, the House Redistricting Committee in 2011 held 17 hearings. The Senate also conducted public hearings.
While the state’s population dropped — leading to the loss of one congressional seat — there were population increases in Kendall, Monroe, Champaign and Kane counties, according to census estimates that were used to create the initial maps. The state’s white population also declined, while the African-American population saw a smaller decline. The Hispanic and Asian population across Illinois grew, according to census figures.
The June 4 maps were seen as a placeholder — and lawmakers approved revised state legislative maps in a special session in September 2021.
Pritzker signed into law the new state legislative maps in September 2021, and the new congressional maps in November 2021.
Finding a path to reform
Republicans currently have a greater redistricting advantage in the country, with the GOP drawing maps in 22 states and Democrats drawing maps in nine states.
But states like Arizona, California and Iowa give redistricting powers to independent commissions, taking the powers out of the hands of elected officials in an effort to create more fair maps.
Voters in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri and Utah also approved measures creating independent redistricting commissions. And Ohio passed a bipartisan redistricting reform measure.
The independent commissions have plenty of support. A 2017 bipartisan poll commissioned by the Campaign Legal Center found an overwhelming majority of Americans — 71% — want the Supreme Court to place limits on lawmakers’ ability to create, and manipulate, voting maps. That included 80% of Democrats, 68% of independents and 65% of Republicans.
Some see a federal law, or a Supreme Court decision as a way to level the playing field.
“I think the right solution, the best solution, is a federal solution. It’s a lot more uniform. It ensures that every state avoids all of the harm of gerrymandering, instead of trying to tackle this state by state,” said Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a professor at Harvard Law School.
“Especially at the congressional level, there’s some concern that if, for example, blue states like Illinois reform, (and) the red states like Texas and Georgia and Florida don’t, you could actually have a situation where reform is counterproductive,” Stephanopoulos continued, “because then you unilaterally disarmed the blue states, while the red states continue to gerrymander their district maps.”
The varying ways states create maps is creating a “patchwork and hodgepodge approach,” according to a consultant who was involved in Illinois’ 2021 redistricting process.
“I think they’d prefer that [uniformity] rather than this sort of hodgepodge thing where we have no consistency state to state,” said the consultant, who spoke on the condition of not being named.
GOP with slight redistricting advantage
A Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) research article in 2023 found that while partisan gerrymandering was widespread in the 2020 redistricting cycle, most of the electoral bias it created canceled out at the national level. It also found that redistricting rules and geography contributed a moderate pro-Republican bias.
“There’s certainly some partisan gerrymandering, but it’s kind of not huge and that kind of cancels out across states,” said Anthony Fowler, a professor in the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. “So Texas and Florida have Republican gerrymanders and Illinois has a Democratic gerrymander, but if you kind of look on average, most states, it’s not terrible and it kind of washes out nationally.”
The study found that across all states, partisan redistricting contributes to 8.6 Republican seats and 6.2 Democratic seats — compared to a nonpartisan baseline. That comes out to a Republican advantage of around 2.3 congressional seats.
Chicago’s redistricting: ‘Disenfranchising people’
Chicago has its own redistricting process, and the city’s ward maps were finalized in 2022 with the creation of 16 majority Black wards, 14 majority-Latino wards and one majority-Asian American ward. Another ward, the 27th, was considered a “Black influence ward.”
Ward boundaries are required to be redrawn every 10 years, and must be approved by Dec. 1 the year after the census. Wards must be “compact, contiguous, and of substantially equal population with an acceptable deviation to respect established communities of interest,” according to the city.
That process was also conducted behind-the-scenes, despite calls from groups like CHANGE Illinois, who created a commission that ultimately held 41 public hearings to gauge community needs. The public input was put online for members of the City Council to see.
Despite that effort, City Council members created a “pool noodle” 37th ward — boundaries that spanned seven miles connecting Grand Avenue to from Damen Avenue to Oak Park Avenue. Social media users also dubbed it a “Q-tip” and a “water slide.”
The City Council also approved splitting Englewood into five wards — down from the six wards it received under a previous map. But for South Side neighborhood residents who say they have too many alderpeople, that change didn’t go far enough.
The remap stoked anger among some alderpeople, including Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), who in May 2022 ripped into the process and accused mapmakers of “disenfranchising” Chicagoans.
“Look what you’ve done. Englewood still has six aldermen. … It’s gonna take an hour and a half for Altgeld Gardens residents who were taken out of my ward and put in the 10th Ward to get to their alderman,” Beale said. “Three buses and an L to get to their representation. That’s disenfranchising people. Look at what they’ve done to the 36th Ward. It’s a string across six wards. How is that community going to be represented?”
Ryan Tolley, a policy expert and newly appointed executive director of CHANGE Illinois, called the city’s latest remap the most blatant example of putting political power over the needs of communities.
“The challenge that voters are facing then to go out and be able to elect folks that really represent the needs of their communities has also become that much tougher,” Tolley said. “It’s unfortunate that we see everywhere with redistricting that political advantage is the overriding force that happens in redistricting and everything else is secondary or a non-existent consideration in it.”
Along with that political power comes the ability to protect incumbents, as the city and state have seen politicians carve out their positions for decades.
“It makes it hard for anyone to mount a sizable challenge and have a shot at winning,” Tolley said, “because folks are hand-selecting their voters and they know which areas, especially with the advancement of technology, it’s really easy to figure out where most of your votes are coming from and where they’re not.”
This story is part of the The Democracy Solutions Project, a partnership among WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government. Together, we’re examining critical issues facing our democracy in the run-up to the 2024 elections.