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Redistricting: winner-take-all
when partisan compromise fails

Charles N. Wheeler III


"A l Jourdan."

At the sound of those three syllables, Republicans cheered. Democrats cringed, and editorial writers wrung their hands.

The speaker was Secy. of State George H. Ryan, and the occasion was the once-in-a-decade, winner-take-all, cartographic sweepstakes to choose a tie-breaking ninth member for the deadlocked Legislative Redistricting Commission.

When Ryan plucked an oversize medicine capsule with the name of the state GOP chairman from a crystal bowl, one could empathize with the partisan reactions.

Republicans were elated because they now had the chance to draw new district boundaries to their liking, while the Democrats' dismay anticipated the end of their decade of legislative dominance.

But the discomfort expressed by some opinion-makers had nothing to do with the outcome of the drawing. Instead, they fretted about the procedure itself, complaining that it was not "fair to voters" that such an important decision should be "left up to chance" or determined "by the luck of the draw."

Such criticism, however, is misleading. By focusing exclusively on the tie-breaking mechanism, its detractors overlook the opportunities for compromise that party leaders must squander before the tie-breaker comes into play. And the naysayers neglect a very practical point: guaranteeing a map will be produced in case of a partisan deadlock.

Remember, under the redistricting procedure established by the 1970 Constitution, the legislature itself has the first duty to redistrict. If lawmakers cannot agree to a plan that the governor will sign into law, the job is assigned to an eight-member commission, divided evenly between the parties. Only when the panel, too, fails in its task is the tie-breaking mechanism invoked.

This year, the Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate crafted a plan with virtually no help from Republicans, which Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican, quickly vetoed. The partisan stalemate persisted on the commission. Democrats complained that Republicans preferred rolling the dice to serious bargaining; in fact, no GOP remap plan ever surfaced before the drawing. Republicans responded that Democrats were too intent on saving their incumbents to acknowledge population shifts favoring the GOP. When the tie-breaker was used for the second time in two decades, the calls for reform began.

A case can be made, though, that change is not warranted. Similar schemes are followed in most other states, with lawmakers given first crack at drawing new districts and the courts taking over if they fail. Commissions are involved in 14 states, initially preparing maps for legislative approval in nine states and serving as a backup to the legislature here and in four other states.

Critics make much of the fact that Illinois alone relies on a blind drawing to select a tie-breaker, while other states typically call on the state Supreme Court to name an extra member to a deadlocked remap panel, frequently an academic or technician without strong partisan ties.

But those who find such alternatives' preferable are ignoring a key element of the Illinois procedure, for it is not the political parties that are charged with proposing names for the tie-breaker drawing, but rather the state Supreme Court. Nor does: the Constitution require that the candidates be highly partisan; in fact, the pertinent; section says only that they must be "not of the same political party." The fact that well-known partisan figures have been nominated on both occasions a drawing was needed reflects only the considered" judgment of the high court, not a constitutional directive.

Indeed, the transcripts of the debate over redistricting at the Sixth Illinois Constitutional Convention show it was clearly the hope of those proposing the tie-breaking mechanism that the court would nominate

6/October 1991 /Illinois Issues

blue-ribbon candidates like university presidents or law school deans.

The ninth member's role would be "not to act as a decision-maker, not to draw a partisan plan, but ... to act as a negotiator and a tie-breaker," said Delegate William A. Sommerschield, an Elmhurst Republican and chief architect of the remap provision. "I believe ... the Supreme Court... is not going to appoint strict partisans as tie-breakers, but is going to appoint individuals, as we have seen in states around this nation, who are going to act as arbitrators." Perhaps the Con-Con delegates were a bit naive in presuming that the high court in a state as highly partisan as Illinois would be blind to politics. But the majority found the tie-breaker preferable to an at-large election of the entire General Assembly, the old Constitution's solution to a remap impasse. Because of the high degree of partisanship here, critics contend the random drawing is unfair to voters because it permits one party to craft new districts favorable to its own members.

The argument is not convincing. Had Democrat Neil P. Hartigan been elected governor, he assuredly would have signed the Democratic map, leaving the GOP out in the cold well before the tie-breaker.

In addition, no matter who draws the map, basic fairness is guaranteed by U.S. Supreme Court decisions and the federal Voting Rights Act, which essentially require that districts have equal population and be drawn so that black and Hispanic communities have the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.

Moreover, fairness should not mean that redistricting must afford some sort of proportional representation for voters who identify with a political party. In fact, Illinois voters rejected the notion in 1980, when they ratified a constitutional amendment that eliminated cumulative voting for the House, a 110-year-old plan that assured at least one Republican and one Democrat from almost every district.

The state's redistricting procedure, including the tie-breaker, is basically sound. Its perceived shortcomings do not come from inherent flaws in its design. Rather, they reflect the unwillingness of legislative leaders to compromise, an essential element for orderly redistricting, whatever the format.

Charles N. Wheeler III is a correspondent in the Springfield Bureau of the Chicago Sun-Times.

October 1991 /Illinois Issues/7

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