GOP puts new twist on redistricting plan
Republican Reps. Ryan Spain, left, Tim Butler, Jim Durkin and Dan Brady discuss their plan for an independent redistricting commission during a Statehouse news conference Wednesday. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Peter Hancock)
Leaders look to overcome constitutional objections to independent commission
By PETER HANCOCK
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – Illinois Republicans have added a new twist to their call for an independent redistricting commission in hopes of overcoming Democrats’ claims that their plan would likely be found unconstitutional.
The new twist, discussed Wednesday during a Statehouse news conference, would be to allow two different commissions – the one they are proposing in legislation, and the one mandated after a certain point under the Illinois Constitution – to work side-by-side to come up with new legislative and congressional district maps.
“The constitution has a commission that exists. It can't be changed, it is what it is,” said Rep. Ryan Spain, R-Peoria. “So how do we feed the correct information into that constitutional redistricting commission? … We recommend the use of Senate Bill 1325 as the best way to gather input because there are still legislators that are included on the constitutional commission.”
Republicans introduced SB 1325 in February. Its language is substantially similar to that of a proposed constitutional amendment that Democratic Sen. Julie Morrison, D-Lake Forest, introduced in 2019 with a bipartisan group of 37 cosponsors – more than the three-fifths majority needed for passage.
It calls for establishing a 16-member redistricting commission appointed by the chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court and the next most senior justice from the other party. The commission would be made up of seven Democrats, seven Republicans and two independents and would “reflect the ethnic, gender, and racial demographics of Illinois.”
Since its introduction, though, Democrats have argued that such a plan cannot be adopted through legislation, but only through a constitutional amendment.
That’s because the Illinois Constitution, as it currently reads, already spells out a procedure for redistricting. It says lawmakers have until June 30 to approve maps, and if they fail to meet that deadline, the responsibility goes to an eight-member commission, divided evenly between Democrats and Republicans, with some members who are legislators and some who are not.
Because the Republican plan is different from what’s provided in the constitution, Democrats argue, it would almost certainly be overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court.
“Republicans know that this bill is nothing but a smokescreen,” Sen. Rachelle Crowe, D-Glen Carbon, said during a recent redistricting hearing. “A bill cannot trump the constitution. There's no ifs ands or buts about that. A bill cannot trump the constitution.”
Asked to respond to that during Wednesday’s news conference, Spain and other House Republicans, for the first time, argued that two commissions could work simultaneously, with the one created under legislation providing information and guidance to the one mandated under the constitution.
“I think that we're at a critical point in which changing the constitution is just not going to happen at this point, because the Democrats will not allow that question to be placed on the ballot,” said House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, of Western Springs. “And so we are looking for any way to be able to find an alternative.”
At issue in this year’s redistricting process is not just who draws the maps, but what population data will be used in the process.
Due to the pandemic, as well as a number of natural disasters last year, the U.S. Census Bureau will be late producing the detailed, neighborhood-level data needed for legislative redistricting. The Census Bureau has said it will have that data in an old, “legacy” format by the end of August, but it won’t be available in a more user-friendly format until late September.
Since the Illinois Constitution requires lawmakers to complete the task by June 30, Democrats have suggested using alternative data sources, including the American Community Survey, which Republicans argue is not intended to be used for redistricting purposes.
“Look, ACS data is a very small sample of the entire state, number one,” said Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield. “It is a snapshot over several years, and it does not accurately reflect the communities in our state. It is good data to use for a variety of things, but even the Census Bureau themselves says that ACS data should not be used for redistricting.”
Democrats, meanwhile, have said they are considering all possible sources of population data, not just the ACS. But they have also said it is their intent to complete the redistricting process before the June 30 deadline.
Durkin, however said Republicans will consider filing a legal challenge to any maps that are based on anything other than official census data.
“We are discussing that possibility,” he said. “And if that is the way that the Democrats are going to draw the districts, that is an option that we're considering, absolutely.”
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.