There are 118 seats in the Illinois House of Representatives. But before a single vote is cast on Election Day, nearly half of those seats will have been filled.
That’s because 54 candidates are running unopposed.
House members’ titles as “representatives” can ring hollow with so many voters having no real choice in the general election. And even in a die-hard blue or red district, losing the power to vote for the opposing party breeds apathy.
Of those 54 free passes, 42 are going to Democrats. Some of the blame falls on the Illinois Republican Party for failing to put warm bodies on the ballot in those districts. And they almost certainly pay the price for it, as any Republican House candidate would likely boost turnout for the top of the ticket.
The Illinois Senate is even less competitive than the House this year. Among 39 races, voters have one name to choose from in 20 of them. Fourteen of the 20 candidates running unopposed are Democrats.
More than anything else, these numbers on politically “safe” districts drive home the problem with partisan mapmaking.
In Illinois, politicians draw the legislative map every 10 years. Here’s how it works:
Both the House and Senate must approve a map, which the governor may then veto or sign into law. If state lawmakers can’t get a map to the finish line, party leadership appoints an eight-member committee to hash things out. If the committee can’t agree on a map, the secretary of state appoints a tiebreaking ninth partisan by random chance. Whichever party wins the lottery for the ninth seat then draws the map.
House Speaker Mike Madigan has drawn Illinois’ legislative maps for three of the past four decades. Notably, a three-member panel of federal judges forced changes to the first map Madigan drew following the 1980 census, after they found it unfairly weakened the voting strength of black and Hispanic Illinoisans.
According to a Chicago Tribune editorial published in January 1982, that was the first time a court in a northern state had found the Democratic Party guilty of intentional discrimination against minorities.
The judges’ ruling, “held in effect that those who drew up the map – primarily [then] House Minority Leader Mike Madigan of Chicago and Martin Murphy, [Chicago] Mayor [Jane] Byrne’s planning commissioner – deliberately designed it to keep black and Hispanic representation low,” the editorial board wrote.
“No defeat in court could have left the Democrats with such an inglorious black eye …”
Nearly 40 years later, the mapmaking process remains the same. And that means whoever becomes the next governor will have a key role to play in mapmaking after the 2020 census.
If J.B. Pritzker wins the governor’s race and the House and Senate remain under Democratic control, Pritzker will have to decide whether to approve a partisan map drawn by his own party come 2021 or demand a more independent process.
Gov. Bruce Rauner would face the same choice if he wins and Republicans take over the General Assembly.
Either man, if elected, must fight to get politicians out of the cartography game.
More Illinoisans deserve a say on who their communities send to Springfield.
Austin Berg is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute. He wrote this column for the Illinois News Network. Austin can be reached at email@example.com.
November 1, 2018 at 11:38AM