Legislators in Illinois and Iowa have begun the once-per-decade process of redrawing political boundaries.
Last week, the Illinois Senate convened its redistricting committee, while in Iowa lawmakers have appointed its redistricting advisory commission. But just as it has with every other facet of our lives, the pandemic has upset the redistricting process. A month ago, the U.S. Census Bureau announced delivery of the detailed data traditionally used to draw new lines would be delayed, possibly until Sept. 30.
That’s complicating life in states all across the country, including Iowa and Illinois.
In Illinois, if lawmakers don’t produce a map of legislative districts by June 30, the task would fall to an 8-member bipartisan commission, which has an Aug. 10 deadline. If a map isn’t produced, a tie-breaking ninth person would be chosen.
In Iowa, if a legislative map isn’t produced by Sept. 15, the task of overseeing the process would fall to the state Supreme Court.
Needless to say, this is a mess, and states aren't happy. Ohio sued the Census Bureau, demanding the data be delivered by the end of this month. That's a pretty big ask, one the Census Bureau says is impossible.
Still, the Biden administration could help states by finding a better estimate for the delivery of data than just "by Sept. 30." It might also speed up the process.
Accuracy is vital, but throughout the pandemic we have seen innovation we hadn’t previously thought possible. Is it not possible in this case? Just look at development of COVID-19 vaccines. Once thought to be a years-long process, they were developed in record time.
Local governments also have a stake in this. In Rock Island County, they're looking to downsize the board, and having this data available is vital.
Absent relief from the federal government, though, states have some tough decisions to make, not least is what set of information to use to redraw boundaries. There has been talk in Iowa and Illinois of using Census Bureau estimates, but that could lead to legal challenges. Using less reliable data also could undermine public confidence.
Frankly, if estimates are found to be reliable, so be it. But we’re skeptical. There’s a reason the decennial Census has been the basis for redrawing districts. To go in another direction would make it incumbent upon lawmakers to demonstrate alternative data sets are not just reliable but can withstand legal scrutiny; using them simply because they’re available in time to meet a deadline is insufficient.
Which brings us to the question of who oversees the process.
In Illinois, Senate President Don Harmon is pledging to get the job done by the June 30 deadline. To do otherwise, he said in a Chicago Sun-Times op-ed, would turn map-making over to "a small commission of appointed political insiders."
Harmon rightly pledges to ensure that minority communities that have traditionally been ignored will be guaranteed fair representation. But we don’t know why a bipartisan commission couldn’t accomplish that task. And, let’s face it, relying on lawmakers to draw these maps has only yielded gerrymandered districts.
It’s true that Gov. JB Pritzker has promised to veto an unfair map, and Emanuel "Chris" Welch, the new speaker of the House, reportedly said the other day he's committed to equitable representation. However, there's little specificity to these promises.
In Iowa, meanwhile, some Democrats are worried Republicans who control the House, Senate and governorship will use this opportunity to upend the state’s unique system, which relies on the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency to draw boundaries.
Iowa law also puts in place a set of rules that significantly limit political considerations.
Republicans have said they’ll honor Iowa’s system, but there's little trust between the parties and the majority has shown its propensity to ram big changes through the Legislature with little public scrutiny.
Senate President Jack Whitver did raise the prospect the other day of suing the federal government. But, so far, it looks like Iowa, like other states, is struggling to find a way to get the job done.
As for who approves the maps, our preference has been for a process that is insulated as much as possible from politics. This is why we have urged Illinois to go to an independent commission; it is why we have long admired Iowa’s method, which filters out much of the partisan politics. It is why we believe if the task falls to the Iowa Supreme Court this year, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. The court could just direct the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency to do the job with the same rules it has followed in the past.
No matter how these questions are sorted out, we hope people in both states will send this message to politicians in Des Moines and Springfield: Drawing political boundaries is a process that should be about setting the table for fair elections and equitable and representative districts and not for ensuring partisan advantage and protecting incumbents.