How Partisan Mapmaking Denies Voters Real Choices


Every law enacted in Illinois begins with this phrase: “Be it enacted by the People of the State of Illinois, represented in the General Assembly.” All parts of the state are divided into districts, from which voters elect a member of the General Assembly. Most often, however, it is not the people who choose their representative, but the representatives who choose their constituents. The legislative map-making process, by which the state is divided into districts, now denies most voters a meaningful choice.

Looking at the last election results, you might think Illinoisans are thrilled with their legislators. About half won with more than 90% of the vote. In only a handful of contests did the loser come within ten percentage points of the winner. But those results are less a result of voter sentiment than of legislative manipulation.

 

  1998200020022004
State SenateWithin 10% pts 3 or 412 of 225 of 592 of 23
Winner with more than 99% 21 of 4110 of 2229 of 5910 of 23
State HouseWithin 10% pts 10 or 1185 of 11810 of 1188 of 118
Winner with more than 99% 58 of 11860 of 11840 of 11858 of 118


Illinois’ electoral landscape is a patchwork of fiefdoms carved up by legislators for their own partisan purposes. Illinois’ Constitution provides that new maps be drawn every ten years. Districts must be “compact, contiguous and substantially equal in population.” The framers of the Constitution gave the General Assembly first crack at drawing the map. If the body of all legislators could not agree, the Constitution provides that a group of eight legislators, including two from each partisan caucus, get the task. The intent was that cooler heads would prevail among this smaller group and compromise might become possible.

The problem with the current map-making system is what happens if the Legislative Commission refuses to draw a map. If this smaller group fails to agree, a ninth member is assigned to the Commission. This ninth member is chosen randomly from a list of two, one from each party, to serve as the tie breaker.

This process is intended to encourage the eight members of the Commission to compromise; hard liners risk losing everything if the other party’s name is added to the Commission. But in practice, that threat has not worked. In 1972, the Commission drew a map without the addition of a tie-breaking ninth member. Every time the legislature has gone to produce a new map since then, however, the Commission has needed a ninth member to break the tie. As a result, every map drawn since 1980 has been a partisan map.

Partisan maps are drawn to foster one party’s dominance of the legislature. While the Constitution may require only that districts are compact, contiguous and substantially equal in population, partisan maps add a fourth goal: election of members from a particular political party. To accomplish this goal, voters are packed into districts based on their tendencies to support one party or the other, with enough districts giving most of its votes to the favored party to create a legislative majority.

The results of this kind of map-making are apparent in the election returns. In 2002, when the top two candidates for governor were within seven percentage points of each other and the Attorney General contest was a 3-percentage point nail-biter, 102 of 118 House candidates beat their opponents by more than 20 points, and 48 of 59 Senate candidates did the same.

 

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Winners with more

than 60% of the Vote

State Senate 35 or 41 18 of 22 48 of 59 21 of 23
State House 96 of 118 105 of 118 102 of 118 103 of 118

 


Nor is this a recent trend. In the last four general elections, held under two different sets of maps, 112 of 145 Senate races and 406 of 472 House races, the winner came away with more than 60% of the vote. Indeed, nearly half of all legislative seats weren’t even contested. Winners won with over 99% of the votes cast in 70 of the last 142 state Senate contests and 216 of the last 472 state House contests where nobody was willing to tilt at the majority party’s windmill.

When partisan groups draw the map, their incentives are not to create competitive districts, or even to ensure that the overall results reflect the interests of voters. Their incentive is to create as many safe seats as possible, with their party winning a majority of the seats.

In most elections in most parts of the state, the office holder is effectively chosen in the party primary (if there is one). Voters in most general elections are denied real choices, and incumbents begin to take their constituents for granted.