As some states rush to redistrict, gerrymandering fight moves to back burner

With census data delayed, some states using survey to draw lines

Josh Silver of the nonpartisan redistricting group RepresentUs says gerrymandering creates an incentive for lawmakers to appeal to extremists by making primaries more important than general elections. (Erika Goldring/Getty Images file photo)
Josh Silver of the nonpartisan redistricting group RepresentUs says gerrymandering creates an incentive for lawmakers to appeal to extremists by making primaries more important than general elections. (Erika Goldring/Getty Images file photo)
Posted April 15, 2021 at 5:30am

Illinois redistricting advocates are having a hard time convincing state lawmakers to be patient.

Members of the Democratic-controlled General Assembly have been waiting for 2020 census data to draw new legislative maps. Those numbers could be delayed until the fall, but state legislators face a June 30 deadline to redraw their electoral maps — or relinquish line-drawing control to a bipartisan commission.

Illinois and a handful of other states, including Oregon, Oklahoma and Idaho, are looking to jump the gun amid the wait for census data, putting efforts to change the way legislative maps get redrawn on the back foot and raising concerns about transparency.

Because of delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic and decisions by the former Trump administration, Census Bureau officials will be late delivering decennial results. The agency has promised congressional apportionment data by the end of this month, with redistricting data — the block-level figures states need — coming as late as the end of September.

The delays present challenges to dozens of states across the country, ranging from blown mapmaking deadlines to crammed primary schedules.

Illinois legislators have said they intend to use alternative figures, likely combining 2010 decennial census data with American Community Survey data from 2019, to draw their maps.

The state could become “the canary in the coal mine” when it comes to using nondecennial census data that way, said Jay Young, the executive director of Common Cause Illinois.

Young and others say that route is rife with potential legal challenges. It also undercuts the investment the state made financially and in outreach to underserved communities to get a good census count.

In 2016, a state Supreme Court ruling shot down a ballot initiative to change the redistricting process, leaving it in the hands of state lawmakers. Advocates like Madeleine Doubek of Change Illinois now find themselves trying to convince legislators to give up that power at the same time they’re drawing new maps.

“That’s obviously not possible at this point,” Doubek said, pointing out that the legislature has not acted on bills even to make the process more transparent.

Changing mapmaking

Change Illinois, Common Cause and other groups nationwide have pushed legislatures to engage the public in the redistricting process.

“We keep telling them that people aren’t aware the (redistricting) hearings are going on,” Doubek said. “They don’t know how to participate when there’s no data for them to use.”

In the interim, efforts to change the mapmaking process itself may fall by the wayside, according to Adam Podowitz-Thomas, senior legal strategist for the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.

“A lot of states have part-time legislatures, and a lot of sessions are ending really soon, so the likelihood of seeing major reform in most states at this point is probably foreclosed for the cycle,” Podowitz-Thomas said.

The advocates have had some success this year. The New Mexico Legislature created an advisory mapmaking commission last month with some limits on partisan data used in drawing maps.

Redistricting advocates still view gerrymandering — the drawing of legislative maps for political advantage — as an existential threat to the country, though. Josh Silver, the executive director of RepresentUs, said his nonpartisan redistricting group wants to highlight the risk redistricting creates for political extremism.

“When you push all of the competition out of the general and into the primary election as gerrymandering does, it creates structural incentive for politicians to appeal to the most extreme factions of their voter base,” he said.

Silver’s organization created a “Gerrymandering Threat Index,” which rated states on a scale of how likely their maps were to be gerrymandered. The group found that more than half of states had political control of redistricting or some other danger to more balanced representation.

Silver pointed to HR 1, a major voting and elections bill, as a potential solution to the problem of politically drawn maps. The measure, which would ban partisan gerrymandering, passed the House 220-210 in March but has run into staunch opposition in the Senate.

Without the new data or a federal change in law, states find themselves grasping for at least a temporary solution.

States can find a balance when using the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data to start the mapmaking process, Podowitz-Thomas said. He and other experts like the National Conference of State Legislatures have said states could use the data to engage the public and effectively use ACS data as a “rough draft” for maps that get revised a few months later.

“What we’re seeing advocates do is really push for transparency and public input. Those are the two main criteria,” Podowitz-Thomas said.

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