Independent Maps proposal offers least protections for minority voting rights

Redistricting reform seems to be on the menu for Illinois – but what will it mean for minority voting rights?

Right now there are three potential constitutional amendments to change how legislative districts are drawn, all competing for space on November’s ballot – one each from the House and Senate and one from the advocacy coalition Independent Maps.

It’s impossible to say what will happen in the next few days, but at the moment it looks like neither the House nor the Senate will consider each other’s proposal.

That would leave the field to the Independent Maps’ amendment, assuming it survives expected court challenges.  It was tailored to overcome constitutional objections that sank a similar effort two years ago.  The group is expected to submit over a half million signatures to get the amendment on the ballot at the end of this week.

Unfortunately, of the three proposals, Independent Maps’ offers the least protection for minority voting rights, according to Jorge Sanchez of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a leading voting rights litigator.

The language of IM’s proposal gives protection of minority voting rights equal priority along with respecting the boundaries of local units of government and “the geographic integrity of communities sharing common social and economic interests.”  It also bars maps that “intentionally or unduly discriminate” against political parties or individuals.

Proposals by State Rep. Jack Franks and State Sen. Kwame Raoul both give minority voting rights priority over other considerations. They also extend those rights to protect the ability of minorities that don’t constitute majorities in their districts to “substantially influence” the outcome of elections – which means minorities can’t be dispersed to the point that their political weight disappears.

These kinds of distinctions make a real difference in the way maps are drawn and tested in court, Sanchez said.  As an example he points to two legislative districts with Latino representatives that cross city borders in the western suburbs.  These would be subject to challenge under IM’s amendment – and the goal of encouraging minority representative would not be a defense against such a challenge – but not under the Franks or Raoul proposals.

Similarly, opening the door to challenges based on “undue” but unintentional partisan discrimination could be used to undercut representative districts, particularly since minorities overwhelmingly vote Democratic.

According to Sanchez, the independent commission established to carry out redistricting under IM’s amendment – named through a highly complicated process that proponents say would insulate the commission from political influence – could end up with minimal minority representation.  The Franks amendment also turns redistricting over to an independent commission, but does a better job of ensuring minority participation, he says: commission members are appointed by the Illinois Supreme Court with a provision that the state’s diversity must be represented.

Raoul’s amendment leaves redistricting in the hands of legislators but requires a series of public hearings.  Sanchez said it was arguably the strongest of the three proposals in terms of protecting minority rights – one reason being that it doesn’t establish a prohibition on partisan discrimination.

Sanchez says he presented these concerns to IM’s drafting committee, but they apparently did not consider them worth taking into account.

That’s unfortunate. I’ve talked with IM supporters who admit the Franks proposal does a better job on voting rights than their own amendment.

Sanchez’s skepticism extends to the value of redistricting reform itself.  He admits that legislators are currently able to tailor districts to their own needs, but he argues that the shape of legislative districts may not be the main reason our elections are less than competitive.  He points to well-tailored districts where insurgents have defeated incumbents, and suggests that the real problem could be the advantage incumbents enjoy in our campaign finance system.

He’s not alone in his skepticism.  Political scientists have found that using independent commissions rather than legislatures to draw districts does not significantly increase the number of competitive elections, according to Democratic strategist Thomas C. Bowen writing in the Chicago Tribune last year.

Reforming redistricting isn’t getting at the “core problems” of our democracy, according to Lawrence Benito, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, writing in the Sun Times last year.  He argued doing that would require fixing laws making it difficult to register to vote as well as limiting the impact of big money on campaigns.

Benito added, “To those of us with any significant political memory, the term ‘blue-ribbon commission’ raises the specter not of greater equality or control but of a group of older, predominantly white men making decisions for the increasing number of us who are minorities and women — usually not to our advantage.” (ICIRR hasn’t taken any position on current proposals.)

And unfortunately, Independent Maps is not entirely free of political taint.  It includes an impressive array of reform groups and independent civic leaders – along with big-money donors from the camp of Governor Bruce Rauner, like Lester Crown, who contributed $200,000 to the cause, and Sam Zell, who gave $100,000.

Rauner himself has endorsed Independent Maps’ amendment, which is part of his “turnaround agenda” – and, clearly, a weapon in his war against Springfield Democrats.

I hope the role of these interests in support of this initiative is not the reason Sanchez’s concerns about protecting minority voting rights were ignored.

Two years ago I wrote supportively of a previous redistricting reform effort.  This year I have a lot more questions.