By Jamey Dunn
Illinois Democrats pushed their state legislative map through both chambers today as Republicans decried what they say was a lack of transparency in the redistricting process.
“I believe the map is politically fair, but we certainly recognize that partisan concerns did play a role,” said Chicago Democratic Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, who sponsored Senate Bill 1177 in the House. Senate sponsor Kwame Raoul, also a Chicago Democrat, said nothing the legislature does can escape being part of a political process.
Democrats presented resolutions in each chamber, House Resolution 385 and Senate Resolution 249, that they say explain many of the choices they made for drawing district lines. “They are a number of other factors that go into any redistricting plan, and all of these were considered in balance one with another. The principles include preserving core of existent districts, preserving communities of interest, respecting county, township, ward boundaries — in the sense of making sure that political divisions are taken into account — maintaining incumbent constituent relationships, proposals that came from testimony both oral and written … incumbent requests and respect for geographic features like rivers,” Currie said.
But Republicans faulted the majority party for not allowing time for the public to digest the changes made to the proposed maps. New versions of the maps were posted online after 6 p.m. Thursday. “Where is the public supposed to go to on the final version of this map for input? … How can the general public in a transparent way have input on the final version of this map when it’s filed and we’re voting on it … hours later,” said Hutsonville Republican Rep. Roger Eddy.
Republicans said the resolutions filed in the record today that offer explanation for the maps came too late. “Do you think three hours is sufficient for the people who live in the state to have the foggiest notion about why you drew this map the way you did?” Sen. Dale Righter, a Charleston Republican, asked on the Senate floor.
“I think the point is that we’re providing a narrative at all.” Raoul said. “I think we’re going well beyond what has ever been done.” Both Raoul and Currie argued that the Democrats’ approach to drawing the map was a historic step for transparency. “I think this has been the most transparent, the most accountable, the most open redistricting process in the history of the sate of Illinois.”
However, Kent Redfield, an emeritus political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield, said the historical bar for openness in the process was set pretty low. “Compared to nothing, yes, this is more open. There’s no question about it.” Redfield said there were public hearings a decade ago when the current map was drawn. However, he added, “there was more public activity this time around.”
But Redfield said that both then and now, the result is the same: a partisan map that attempts to satisfy the interests of party leadership, incumbents and certain interest groups while not violating state and federal law.
Currie said the map released late Thursday night is not “significantly different” than the maps proposed last week. “But it does represent our effort to make sure that people who brought legitimate issues to us were given an opportunity to be heard.”
After receiving public criticism from many organizations representing minorities, Democrats bolstered the numbers of minority populations in some districts.
“We heard from many Latino groups at the hearings, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. They were concerned that some of the districts that had majority Hispanic populations didn’t have enough to make those effective opportunities for Hispanic populations to have an impact on electoral outcomes. So we made some changes to voting age populations in several districts,” Currie said.
The United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations (UCCRO) has crunched the demographic numbers on the new map. Josina Morita, executive director of UCCRO said the number of minority majority districts increased under the proposal that passed today. Morita said the number of House districts where African-Americans make up more than 55 percent of the voting age population went from eight under the plan released last week to nine under the legislation passed today, and the number of Senate districts increased from two to three. Hispanic House districts with more than 65 percent of voting age population went up from four to five. Morita said the map also creates three districts where Asian-Americans have the potential for political influence. “Working with the state legislature and over 50 community organizations, we drew a map that creates the first Asian-American influence districts, dramatically increases the number of Latino majority districts and maintains the strong representation African-Americans currently have in Springfield,” Morita said in a prepared statement.
The changes Democrats made may not have been enough to satisfy at least one minority organization. Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for MALDEF, said the Democrats’ original proposal violated the federal Voting Rights Act by diluting the voting power of minorities. The group’s current concern apparently is the splitting of the Little Village neighborhood in Chicago into multiple legislative districts. Raoul said the move was made to create stronger Latino districts. According to a release sent out by Senate Republicans, MALDEF is urging Gov. Pat Quinn to veto the map because it “fractures communities of interest and weakens the voting strength of Latino neighborhoods.”
According to the release, Perales said: “We cannot support a map that splits one of the most important Latino communities in Chicago. In our proposed map, MALDEF kept Little Village together, created additional Latino majority districts and ensured the preservation of Black majority districts. MALDEF’s proposed map demonstrates that the Legislature elevated incumbency protection over respect for the Latino community."
MALDEF spokespersons did not return telephone calls seeking to confirm the statement.
Democrats also released a proposed map for congressional districts that apparently is directed toward making up for ground lost in the 2010 election, when Democrats lost several suburban districts. “It’s a much more partisan map than 10 years ago,” Redfield said of the proposal. He said the 2001 map was drawn by the incumbents to protect their seats, compared with the current proposal that is intended to increase Democrats' chances in future elections. “They clearly would like to eventually shift five seats by getting rid of one and taking control of four others.” Illinois lost one congressional seat because of the population loss in the 2010 census. Redfield said there is no guarantee that Democrats in the U.S. House will be able to pick up that lost seat in another state, such as Texas or Florida, which gained congressional districts because of growing populations.
Quinn would not comment today on whether he will sign the Democrats map proposal for state legislative districts. He only said that he is encouraging lawmakers to be “fair” in the redistricting process.