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Illinois Republicans Sue Over Democrat-Drawn Legislative, Judicial Maps

Brian Mackey
NPR Illinois

Illinois Republicans on Wednesday sued to block new legislative and judicial district boundary maps drawn and approved by Democrats — maps that’ll be in use for a decade’s worth of elections and political change.

The suit, filed in federal court, is the first of several expected over the new maps, which Gov. JB Pritzker signed into law on Friday. It’s the culmination of an argument months in the making over Democrats’ use of non-2020 Census data to draw the maps, as that data is delayed due to the COVID pandemic.

Illinois’ House and Senate Republican leaders, who both represent superminority caucuses mostly powerless over Democrats, claimed in their lawsuit that the Democratic-drawn maps violate the Equal Protections Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — the amendment that formally gave citizenship to formerly enslaved people.

In a statement accompanying the lawsuit’s filing Wednesday, House GOP Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) said the suit “should come as no surprise to Illinoisans” as the maps were drawn in a “partisan process.”

“The tone deaf Democratic party of Illinois has robbed citizens of a fair and transparent legislative map-making process, and I plan to be a conduit for Illinois citizens who demand honesty by ensuring they also have their day in court,” Durkin said.

Gov. JB Pritzker said as a candidate in 2018 that he’d veto maps drawn by lawmakers or political staff, and urged lawmakers to appoint a bipartisan commission to draw the maps. But as governor, he’s softened on that line, saying only that he’d veto an “unfair” map that didn’t reflect Illinois’ diversity. In signing the maps last week, Pritzker pointed to the state’s diversity as reason to sign what the Democrats advanced.

Though new Census data is typically available in mid-spring of a remap year, the pandemic delayed the data’s dissemination to states until August. But Democrats forged ahead with mapmaking using a five-year aggregation of American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau, plus voter data and, Democrats said, input from 50 hearings the House and Senate redistricting committees held this spring.

Though those hearings were sparsely attended both in-person and on Zoom, many community advocacy organizations were repeat guests, and most urged Democrats to wait until Census data was available.

Republicans joined in that outcry, but the GOP has motivation to let the process play out beyond June 30th — a trigger date laid out in Illinois’ constitution that demands new legislative maps are approved or the process is taken out of lawmakers’ hands entirely.

Three of the four times that’s happened, a bipartisan appointed panel has deadlocked. If that likely scenario played out again, Republicans would get a 50/50 shot at controlling the process later this year.

Instead, however, Democrats stuck to their play from 10 years ago and with control of the House, Senate and governor’s mansion, they approved maps before June 30.

Republicans asked the court to force the post-June 30 appointed bipartisan commission to take over the mapmaking process.

Though litigation against new political maps in prior decades has largely been unsuccessful, the GOP’s suit and other likely legal challenges to Democrats’ maps this year could be different as no state has ever used ACS data to draw new legislative district boundaries. And Wednesday’s 39-page complaint focuses on that ACS data and claims its use is “arbitrary and discriminatory.”

The suit alleged the new maps are arbitrary because ACS data was used “instead of the actual census counts, which will be available in a few short months,” and said they were discriminatory “because the use of ACS estimates results in greater undercounts of minority populations, and thereby ensures that historically undercounted minority communities will continue to be underrepresented and lose their right to an equal vote in the legislature.”

Remapping political boundaries after a decennial Census year is always contentious as they represent — or don’t represent — identities of distinct communities. Illinois’ Latino population, for example, has grown in the last 10 years while Chicago’s Black population has fallen as those communities migrate to the south suburbs or out of state.

And Asian American Illinoisans, who only just saw legislators from their communities be elected to the General Assembly in the past five years, are poised to gain political ground all over the U.S. as both parties begin to tap into those potential voters after largely ignoring Asian Americans for decades.

Illinois GOP Republican Leader Dan McConchie (R-Hawthorn Woods) said in a statement Wednesday that he and Durkin filed suit “on behalf of the thousands of families, small business owners, workers, and taxpayers who said they wanted an independently drawn map, not the one handed down by political insiders desperately clinging to power.”

McConchie was referring to both popular opinion and efforts in 2014 and 2016 to amend Illinois’ constitution to allow for an independent commission to take the mapmaking process from lawmakers’ hands. The 2014 effort met a swift end in court, but the 2016 effort went to the Illinois Supreme Court, which split down party lines and threw the referendum question off the ballot, finding it didn’t meet the state’s exacting standards for a citizen-led constitutional amendment.

Democrats were skeptical that Republicans — whose counterparts in GOP-controlled states have gerrymandered legislative districts to benefit their party, and in the last decade have sought to dismantle decades-old protections in the federal Voting Rights Act in the name of preventing rare voter fraud — truly had minority communities’ interests in mind.

On Wednesday, State Rep. Lisa Hernandez (D-Cicero), who chaired the House’s redistricting committee this spring, said in a statement that the GOP lawsuit was a “disappointing waste of taxpayer dollars,” and called Republicans obstructionists.

“As expected, the Republicans are doing everything in their power to block a map that reflects the true diversity of Illinois in hopes that they get a chance to single handedly draw a map for their political gain," Hernandez said.

Democrats in charge of the Senate’s redistricting committee also attempted to heap shame on Republicans Wednesday.

“It is disappointing but not surprising Republicans would seek to strike down these new maps, which reflect the great racial and geographic diversity of our state,” State Sens. Omar Aquino (D-Chicago) and Elgie Sims (D-Chicago) said in a statement. “Throughout this process, they have done nothing but delay and obstruct efforts to ensure our communities are fairly represented, as seen by their refusal to even draft their own proposals. We stand by our work to ensure everyone has a voice in state government.”

Copyright 2021 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

Hannah covers state government and politics for NPR Illinois and Illinois Public Radio. She previously covered the statehouse for The Daily Line and Law360, and also worked a temporary stint at the political blog Capitol Fax in 2018.