Redistricting process begins without current census data

Illinois Capitol News

‘We don’t need census data,’ Senator Koehler says in redistricting hearing

PEORIA, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — When the Coronavirus delayed the federal government’s ability to collect a count of the country’s population, it gave Illinois Republicans a small opening to potentially alter the state’s legislative and Congressional district maps for the next decade.

In a normal year, the map making powers would rest squarely in the hands of the Senate President, Speaker of the House, and the Governor. In past years when a Republican occupied one of those offices, the deadlocked process would inevitably require a tiebreaker, which is spelled out in the state constitution. This year, Republicans are hopeful the delayed census data could have virtually the same effect, increasing their odds of influencing the political maps from zero to a coin flip.

The Illinois Constitution requires the General Assembly to approve a new redistricting plan before June 30th in the year after the once-in-a-decade census. However, the Census Bureau estimates it won’t have the completed figures ready to publish until September 30th, three months after the June 30th deadline.

If the state misses that deadline, the four legislative leaders appoint eight members — four Democrats and four Republicans — to a bipartisan panel to draw the map. If at least five members of the bipartisan panel of political appointees can’t agree on a new map before August 10th, the Supreme Court helps break through the gridlock by drawing the name of a ninth member to join the panel and break the tie.

“Some have argued that we should put these hearings off due to the delay in data from the U.S. Census Bureau,” Senator Dave Koehler (D-Peoria) said at a redistricting committee hearing in the Peoria Civic Center on Monday night. “I believe that that would be the wrong approach because it would mean a lot of people in Peoria and other communities would have less time to engage in the process.”

“There is no need to rush these hearings,” Senator Steve McClure (R-Springfield) responded, “because the official redistricting data from the Census Bureau has been delayed, and it will not be available until this fall.”

Instead of rolling the dice on a Republican appointee winning the tie-breaker to draw the maps, Democrats are forging ahead without the complete U.S. Census data, opting to use figures from the American Community Survey instead. The U.S. Census Bureau is the agency that compiles the ACS data, but it is less comprehensive than the official census which is conducted every decade.

“We don’t need census data to hear about how the community has changed in the last decade, and we don’t need census data to hear exactly what you have to say, in terms of your needs of being fairly represented,” Koehler told the small audience.

The state constitution does not explicitly require the legislature to use the official census data, but the “original legal purpose of the decennial census,” which is required by the U.S. Constitution, was specifically to draw the Congressional district maps, according the Census Bureau’s website.

“Recent history has shown us that these numbers aren’t as accurate as the census,” McClure argued. “It’s extremely important to be accurate. I mean, that little fudging of the numbers could cause a community to lose funding or to lose representation. And some of these districts, as you know, are borderline districts that are could go either way, Republican or Democrat.”

Koehler said the term “fair map” can be subjective, but said the “voting rights definition” is “to keep ethnic communities and communities of color together so you don’t dilute voting strength there.”

In recent history, redistricting experts have rated Illinois’ political maps very highly at protecting the voting power of minority populations, but very low in overall competitiveness.

The Illinois House has 19 districts that lean Republican, 60 that lean Democratic, and 38 competitive seats, according to Dave’s Redistricting. All 31 of the majority-minority districts in the House voted for Democrats. Republicans won 18 of 19 statehouse legislative districts with a 90% white voter base.

“Voting rights is absolutely essential,” Al Hooks with the Peoria chapter of the NAACP testified Monday night. “This is 10 years worth of representation. It’s going to affect our dollars and everything else, so this process is critical.”

Hooks told lawmakers his testimony was a “surprise,” and after the meeting said he was caught off guard by their request to speak at the hearing.

Once he was at the table, senators crafted their questions to either win Hooks’ confidence in their party or prodded him to cast doubt on their opponents. He urged them to take as much input from the public as possible, and to look beyond their own short-term political interests.

After the meeting adjourned, Hooks described gerrymandering as “probably the greatest impact” on “the partisanship we have now,” though he recognized why a party in power might be reluctant to surrender to another while politicians in neighboring states continue the practice of picking their voters.

“If we could change that aspect from the entire country viewpoint, we’d start to move into better shape,” he said.

The next in-person legislative hearing is scheduled for next Tuesday night in Springfield. The Illinois Senate Redistricting Committee is inviting the public to follow along with the hearings online and to submit written testimony via email.

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