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Dems Forge Ahead With Redistricting Redo While Community Advocacy Groups Claim Deja Vu And GOP Hopes

Illinois House Democrats

Just three months after Democrats pushed new legislative maps through the General Assembly in the waning days of spring legislative session, lawmakers are back in Springfield on Tuesday week to fix those same maps, lest a federal court take mapmaking power out of their hands one way or another.

But in the days before lawmakers’ slated one-day session, a flurry of hearings on redistricting seemed eerily similar to leaders representing communities of interest, who sat through dozens of hours of nearly identical hearings this spring, only to be left again feeling as if their efforts were futile.

“To quote the late Yogi Berra, ‘It feels like deja vu all over again,’” Rabbi Shlomo Soroka, Director of Government Affairs at Agudath Israel of Illinois, told a panel of lawmakers during a virtual hearing Monday evening.

A prominent group that agitates for voting rights and other government reforms boycotted the hearing in protest of what its leader characterized as a “mishandled and undemocratic” process, criticizing the planned vote on the new maps Tuesday — just a day after proposed new changes were unveiled.

“At each opportunity in this redistricting process, it’s as if lawmakers went out of their way to ensure the creation of these maps had as little public input as possible,” Common Cause Illinois Executive Director Jay Young said in a statement. “Rejecting an independent bipartisan redistricting commission, politicians chose to draw maps themselves. They did so behind closed doors, with a series of hearings attempting to add a veneer of public access. Yet, these hearings were consistently hastily scheduled, poorly noticed to the general public, and sparsely attended. As a result, the maps to be voted on tomorrow will not be crafted of public input, but of pure politics.”

Democrats called for the special session in order to tweak the maps the majority party pushed through the General Assembly in late May. Since then, a pair of federal lawsuits were filed seeking to void the maps on the assumption that official U.S. Census data would prove at least some of those new districts unconstitutionally larger or smaller than others.

And earlier this month, that pandemic-delayed data confirmed some of the newly drawn districts under the Democrats’ plan had population deviations well beyond the 10% deviation allowed but the U.S. Supreme Court. A federal judge overseeing redistricting litigation warned Democrats last week that they’d have to revise their maps to “satisf[y] all constitutional and statutory obligations” — even ones not yet alleged in the two existing lawsuits.

While community advocacy groups want to see revised maps that keep their political power intact through concentrating their particular racial, ethnic or religious groups in certain legislative districts, Republicans also see an opportunity to keep or possibly even expand their waning power in Illinois through a court decision they hope would essentially turn back time.

‘You don’t care about our voting rights’

After the U.S. Census Bureau early this year announced the usual official decennial Census data — typically given to states for redistricting purposes in the spring the year after a Census — would be delayed until late summer, Democrats in the General Assembly forged ahead beginning in March.

While Illinois’ constitution stipulates new legislative maps be enacted by June 30 of a redistricting year, four of the five previous remapping processes have advanced to an eight-member, bipartisan appointed commission outlined as a failsafe in the constitution. Three of those four times, the commission has ended in gridlock, and a tie has been broken by a ninth member whose name has been pulled out of a hat — or crystal bowl in 1991 — with Democrats coming out on top in two of those three games of chance.

But Democrats controlled both chambers in the General Assembly and the governor’s office in 2011, providing a much easier path to meeting that June 30 deadline and avoiding the months-long drama that followed. Democrats hoped to repeat that same play in 2021, but without official Census data to go off of, chose to avoid giving Republicans a 50/50 chance to control the mapmaking process by using American Community Survey data instead.

The American Community Survey is also a product of the U.S. Census Bureau, but is only conducted every two years with a much smaller sample size than the official decennial Census. Almost immediately, community advocacy groups began to worry their racial, ethnic and religious groups wouldn’t be accurately reflected in ACS data.

Soroka, who became a regular fixture during redistricting hearings this spring, recapped his repeated testimony to lawmakers again on Monday, imploring them to keep the Orthodox Jewish community together in one legislative district. That 16th House district was briefly represented by a rabbi until the same Democrats who installed him in 2019 launched a primary challenge last year after he voted “present” on legislation expanding abortion rights.

Soroka reminded Democrats that they’d been able to claim they’d listened to community input during the final week of session by restoring the Orthodox Jewish community to mostly remain in Illinois’ 16th House District, which includes Chicago’s northernmost neighborhoods, plus Lincolnwood and Skokie. Indeed, the final version of the legislative maps Democrats pushed through the General Assembly in May restored the Orthodox Jewish community’s continuity inside the district, but Soroka said new proposed district boundaries again threaten the community’s voting power.

“Imagine our surprise when the new maps were released today and we saw that once again, even more families were siphoned off from the 16th House District, further dividing us, diluting our political influence,” Soroka said. “What happened to the statements proclaiming how vital we were to the process in making revisions so that ‘We could keep more of the Orthodox Jewish community united’?”

Valerie Leonard, the co-founder of North Lawndale Alliance, who also regularly testified during redistricting hearings this spring, told lawmakers on Monday the new proposed maps published by Democrats ahead of the evening hearing were “just ridiculous” in how Illinois’ Black population would be reflected.

New Census data reveals Illinois’ Black population has been mostly stable since the 2011 Census — remaining at approximately 14% — but Leonard took issue with Black communities’ political representation being “cut in half.” The new proposed legislative maps published Monday contain eight state House districts and four state Senate districts with populations that are 50% Black or higher — down from 15 House districts and seven majority Black Senate districts Democrats claimed to have passed in May.

“This is not because of the Census,” Leonard said of the changes. “Someone had a very, very deliberate way of drawing this, such that — well, I’m going to keep it clean, I’m going to be nice: You didn’t care about our voting rights. And this dilutes Black voting power to the hilt.”

Latino voting power at issue

Groups that advocate for Latino voters did not testify at Monday evening’s hearing after Democrats released their new proposed maps, which specifically sought to correct for unconstitutional deviations in population sizes between districts that would affect areas of Latino voters.

Latinos were the group most expected to see their political power grow in the wake of new Census numbers, and the newly released data earlier this month bore that out — not just in Illinois, but in many other states too. Along with a lawsuit filed by Republicans earlier this summer, it’s the legal challenge filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund against the Democratic leaders that’s expected to carry the most weight in federal court in the fight over the maps.

MALDEF also has the best track record of success in redistricting litigation in Illinois, dating back four decades. The plaintiff in MALDEF’s first redistricting lawsuit in 1981, Miguel del Valle, went on to a career in politics, including serving for 20 years in the first Latino-majority state Senate district created as a result of the legal challenge.

Del Valle, who now serves as president of the Chicago Board of Education, did testify on Thursday, telling lawmakers that if he’d been in the General Assembly in May, he’d have voted against the maps Democrats pushed through this spring.

If MALDEF's challenge is successful, a panel of federal judges could take over the remapping process in limited areas where district boundaries are found to be unconstitutional.

Roberto Valdez, associate director of the Chicago-based Latino Policy Forum, asked Democrats last week to allow more time for community input this time around, recalling how community advocacy groups had very little time to review the final maps before they were passed in May.

“The drawing of the maps…contradicted the principles set forth by this committee — those principles of fairness, of diversity and of equity,” Valdez said. “However, three months later, here we are with an opportunity to amend what was done back then and include the suggestions of community organizations and advocates.”

Other community advocacy organizations are also asking for more time to review the proposed maps — at least 30 days, most said — but Democrats have not committed to straying from their timeline.

One reason the groups are looking for extra time is to get specific about meeting thresholds for minority representation in new districts. For example, Valdez told lawmakers his group wants to see districts that have at minimum 55 to 60 percent Latinos of voting age to “optimize the concentration of Latinos.”

Internal analysis released with Monday’s maps shows five of the new proposed House districts have populations with 55% or more voting age residents of Hispanic origin.

The federal court in Chicago overseeing the redistricting litigation has scheduled three days for arguments in late September, and last week rejected a GOP bid to expedite a decision before lawmakers returned to Springfield Tuesday. But in that same brief order, U.S. District Judge Robert Dow urged the General Assembly “to take into account the views of the Plaintiffs in crafting any amended plan with the objective of presenting for the Court's consideration a plan that satisfies all constitutional and statutory obligations, not just those raised in the existing pleadings and motions.”

Dow warned the parties they should still assume the lawsuit is active “to the extent that an amended plan still raises viable legal challenges” and will need immediate attention in the coming months leading up to the winter, when candidates will need to begin collecting signatures to get on the ballot.

MALDEF’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of five Latino voters in four different House districts under the plan Democrats passed in May. The suit alleges those voters have been living in districts that were malapportioned in the 2011 redistricting cycle, and will again live in districts that violate the 14th Amendment principle of “one man one vote” — unless the court steps in.

Of the four districts identified in the lawsuit, three of them saw minor adjustments to their proposed borders under the new district maps Democrats published Monday, compared with the maps passed in May. That includes the 1st House District, which State Rep. Aarón Ortiz (D-Chicago) has represented since 2019 and will continue to represent under the new map, despite the changed territory.

The slight change to the first district does not affect its neighbor to the south, the 22nd House District, represented by freshman State Rep. Angelica Guerrero-Cuellar (D-Chicago). Guerrero-Cuellar, who was appointed to the House seat vacated by longtime former House Speaker Mike Madigan in February, recently filed an unusual motion in the MALDEF suit asking to be added to the list of defendants, along with Democratic leaders.

In the filing, Guerrero-Cuellar said she was asking the court on behalf of her constituents as she wanted to prevent any sort of settlement of surrounding districts that may affect her own. According to internal data, the new 22nd District’s population is nearly 63% voting age residents of Hispanic origin — the third-most largest share in the new proposed map.

“The Representative of the 22nd District has a significant interest in maintaining the current configuration of the map to protect her constituents’ rights to a fair and reasonable opportunity to elect candidates of their choice and avoid dilution of Latino/a/x votes,” Guerrero-Cuellar’s attorneys wrote.

Guerrero-Cuellar is represented in the matter by the Del Galdo Law Group, whose namesake Michael Del Galdo has long been close with Madigan.

In court filings seeking to block Guerrero-Cuellar’s legal move, MALDEF included a July 2 letter from Guerrero-Cuellar to Griselda Vega Samuel, the organization’s midwest regional counsel and leader in its Chicago office. The letter asked Vega Samuel to “refrain from taking any legal actions that would disrupt the representation of this community and silence local voices.”

“I am deeply concerned that attempts to overturn the map in court could disrupt the representation this community enjoys and silence our voices,” Guerrero-Cuellar wrote. “It is my sincere hope that you will respect the diversity of this community and the clearly stated will of the people who lives here and forgo any legal challenge to the 22nd Representative District.”

GOP hopes to turn back time through legal challenge

Between Thursday and Monday, eight redistricting hearings met both in person and virtually online, with varying degrees of success. One hearing scheduled in Collinsville on Friday morning ended within about 10 minutes after only two Republican redistricting committee members attended in person, and no community members showed up.

State Rep. Tim Butler (R-Springfield), who serves as minority spokesman on the House redistricting committee, has taken to calling the remap redo process a “sham,” citing all sorts of mishaps, including locked doors at a Sunday morning hearing in Aurora and a website meant for community input on the maps that for days has not allowed users to make an account.

At the start of Monday’s meeting, Butler quoted from the Declaration of Independence, seeking to draw a comparison from the Democrats leading the redistricting process to King George III.

“He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures,” Butler read.

But even more than drawing attention to what Republicans and some community advocacy groups have railed against as an unfair process, Butler and his GOP colleagues want a federal judge to find merit in their contention that the maps Democrats passed in May were not constitutional, and essentially turn back the clock, giving the party a 50/50 shot at controlling the mapmaking process.

Unlike MALDEF’s lawsuit, the complaint filed by Republican leaders earlier this summer asks a judge to declare the maps passed by Democrats “void ab initio,” a legal finding that would force all parties to act as if the law was never passed.

The GOP plans to use Democrats’ actions in passing revised legislative maps as admission by the majority party that the first set of maps they passed in May were, indeed, unconstitutional and should be nullified. In this scenario, Republicans claim, the state constitution’s June 30 deadline to pass a redistricting plan would not technically have been satisfied, thus forcing the appointment of the bipartisan commission to take over the remapping process.

If and when the appointed commission deadlocks, Republicans would once again get their 50/50 chance to win a tiebreaker vote, which could propel them to political relevancy once again. Currently, the maps passed by Democrats this spring, as well as the revised maps set for a vote Tuesday, pack eight sets of Republicans together into new House and Senate districts, forcing sitting GOP lawmakers to either run against their colleagues or retire.

But Republicans face an uphill battle with that legal argument. In their motion to dismiss the lawsuit, attorneys for Democrats point out that federal courts don’t have jurisdiction to force state officials to comply with state law, and suggest the court dismiss that part of the suit so it can be handled in state court.

However, the Democrats’ attorneys also point out the Illinois Supreme court has also ruled in the past that just because a law is declared unconstitutional, its status as “void ab initio” doesn’t mean it never existed.

“Instead, “‘[t]he actual existence of a statute, prior to a determination that the statute is unconstitutional, is an operative fact and may have consequences which cannot justly be ignored,’” the attorneys wrote, quoting from nesting dolls of case law spanning decades. “‘The past cannot always be erased by a new judicial declaration.’”

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.