Illinoisans are furious about the way their government has been running (or, more accurately, not running). They’re looking for solutions, and some are grasping at anything within reach.
For example, a Downstate newspaper editorial recently attempted to pin the blame for just about all of our state’s fiscal and economic problems on the way politicians in this state draw legislative district maps. That’s just silly.
Reforming the process by taking map-drawing duties from politicians and handing it to a nonpartisan commission is definitely a good idea. But don’t kid yourself that reforming this one process – in which politicians choose their voters instead of voters choosing their politicians – will suddenly make Illinois great again.
First of all, it might not work like some think it will. When editorial writers and pundits talk about redistricting reform, they usually focus on the man who draws many of the legislative district maps: Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, one of the most disliked politicians in all of Illinois and the man who is blamed for many (or even all) of our problems. Take that power away from him and you’ll do away with Madigan, the theory goes.
Yet take a look at the Illinois Election Data Web site, which has the 2014 gubernatorial election results by Illinois House district. Those districts were drawn, of course, by Madigan.
Bruce Rauner won 50.8 percent of the popular vote in 2014 to claim the governor’s office from Pat Quinn. Yet, by my count, Rauner also won 69 of Illinois’ 118 House districts that same year, or 58.5 percent.
In other words, the Republican candidate for governor won 22 more House districts than the House Republicans.
That’s why Rauner thinks he has a real shot at picking up some House seats this year. His operation is focusing like a laser on the districts he won.
Why didn’t Republican House candidates do as well as Rauner? Let’s step back a couple of years. The House Democrats picked up seats in 2012 after they drew the new map in 2011, but besides creating districts that certainly favored their candidates, the wins were also due to ’12 being a hugely favorable (to them) presidential election year. Democrats do much better here in presidential years.
And once people are elected, it’s difficult to knock them out. By the time the national GOP wave swept through two years later, in 2014, it ran smack dab into Democratic incumbents who’d been working their new districts hard for two years. That’s always something to remember about Madigan: In exchange for his monetary and staff support, he demands rigorous door-to-door work by his candidates. Once they’re in, they tend to stay in.
This year, the presidential election means the national trend will likely be the Democrats’ friend yet again. If Rauner doesn’t net some gains, he’ll likely blame Madigan’s map, but that won’t be totally true.
And just because one party draws the map doesn’t mean it has a lock on it. For instance, Illinois Republicans currently control three U.S. House districts that were actually drawn to favor Democrats.
Also, go back to 1991, the last time the Republicans drew the legislative district map. Madigan’s Democrats managed to hold on to control in the very next election, when Bill Clinton and Carol Moseley Braun swept the state. But Madigan’s Democrats lost the majority two years later in a huge national GOP landslide.
Madigan learned some hard lessons in 1994. He regained the majority in 1996, when President Clinton ran again, and managed to hold onto it until he could draw his own map in 2001.
Yet the Senate Republicans held their majority throughout that very same 10-year period. So getting rid of Madigan – or even clipping his wings – isn’t going to be as easy as it looks.
I think a nonpartisan, independent remap process would be a good thing no matter the Madigan-related outcome. But so would California’s open primary system, in which the top two vote-getters battle it out in November even if they’re from the same party. I’d love to see that brought to Illinois.
There are lots of things we can do to reform state elections. But I highly doubt this one reform will solve all our problems.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax (a daily political newsletter) and CapitolFax.com.