SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — On Wednesday afternoon, three top Republicans on the House Redistricting Committee sat in a conference room on the Capitol grounds and used a blue crayon to scribble squiggly lines on the back of napkins.
Locked out of the room where real map lines are being drawn across the hall, representatives Tim Butler (R-Springfield), Ryan Spain (R-Peoria), and Avery Bourne (R-Morrisonville) expressed frustration at their lack of involvement in drawing the lines that could determine the political probability and racial makeup of state legislative races, congressional seats, and judicial districts for the next decade.
Democrats hold a supermajority in the House and Senate and hold all of the power to draw the maps on their own. They’re racing to wrap up the maps before a constitutional deadline of June 30th.
Republicans hammered Democrats for shutting them out of the process. They’re pushing to drag the process beyond June 30th when they would have a better chance of influencing the district lines.
“I’ve encouraged Democrats and Republicans to work together on the remap,” Governor J.B. Pritzker said at a press conference on Wednesday. But he added, “I don’t actually know all the data that’s being used.”
“I think it’s really telling that the governor said that he didn’t know all of the data that the Democrats are using,” Bourne said. “This is a question that we’ve been asking of the other side for a long time.”
Last Thursday, Rep. Lisa Hernandez (D-Cicero), who chairs the House Redistricting Committee, said the map data comes from “an assortment” of sources, and said, “the [American Community Survey] is only one source.”
While Republicans have called for an independent process, spending records and vouchers filed with the Illinois Comptroller’s office show they are also actively working on a backup plan.
The House and Senate combined to spend more than $1.4 million so far to re-draw the maps. In the Senate, Democrats reported spending $557,594.80 so far, dwarfing the $173.731.44 in Senate Republican map-making expenses. Meanwhile, House Republicans reported spending $427,165.77 compared to $260,627.05 for House Democrats.
“They’ve outspent us, so that is very telling that they are doing something,” Hernandez said on Wednesday.
“Look, we’re going to be prepared,” Butler said. “We’re preparing for, hopefully, you know, getting real data and having the tools in place to help the public draw maps.”
“I have not seen a map from the Republicans,” Pritzker said. “I think I would have liked to have seen what they would like to see. I have not seen what the Democrats have come up with yet, so I hope that they’ll produce a map soon, too. And then we’ll see where we go.”
Spending records show Democrats in the House and Senate hired Election Data Services, Inc. to design their redistricting models. Combined, the two caucuses have spent $378,462.09 hiring the Virginia-based company to build out their databases.
Kim Brace, the company’s president, explained how his redistricting firm plugs in population data from the American Community Survey and analyzes it alongside racial demographic information and compiled election returns.
“All redistricting, certainly from the standpoint of election returns, there’s interest in knowing how the area performed in terms of politically, of voting,” Brace said in a Thursday phone call. “It’s also important in terms of racial bloc voting analysis, which we are also working with.”
While Illinois Democrats have vowed their maps will adhere to the Voting Rights Act and protect the voting power of minority voices, Republicans have warned the maps could undercount minority populations and warned the lines will be drawn for maximum political gain.
“Anytime you’re changing boundaries, it will have a political impact,” Brace said. “The most important question is, ‘How good is the census?’ We don’t know that yet.”
Brace, a national expert on redistricting, said district lines can shape political probabilities, but cannot determine election outcomes with much certainty, due to constantly shifting population patterns and public political sentiments. In the absence of census data, he said his company also incorporates alternative data sets.
“We have used voter data to help in the database building,” he acknowledged. “The main thing is looking at the election returns which are at the precinct level, and we use the voter data to help in the disaggregation of those precinct election results down to the census block.”
Butler says the House Republicans are not yet drawing maps, and did not know what data the public should use to submit maps of their own. He considers the real data to be the full, block-by-block U.S. Census data, which federal officials have said is delayed until after June 30th due to complications with the Coronavirus.
“The best data to use is the [census] data that’s going to come out in August,” Butler said, though census officials said it could come out in September.
“I don’t actually know all the data that’s being used,” Pritzker said, but claimed, “the Constitution requires that we pass a map before June 30th.”
That’s only if Democrats want to lock Republicans out of the process.
“He falsely claimed that there’s a June 30th deadline, like that’s the end all be all, that it has to be done immediately,” Bourne responded.
The only data Democrats have publicly said they’re using to draw maps are rough estimates from the American Community Survey. Last month, when the U.S. Census Bureau released the total statewide population data, the final count revealed the ACS estimates had drastically undercounted the state’s real population for years, resulting in inflated estimates about population loss.
The next day, Pritzker celebrated the robust turnout in the census count, and took aim at conservative outlets that have long portrayed the state’s declining population as a result of Democratic policies.
“There are many carnival barkers and people who have run down the state for years who have said that we’ve lost hundreds of thousands of people over the last 10 years, as it turns out, it’s about 7,500 people,” Pritzker said.
On Wednesday, Pritzker again celebrated the census results, but endorsed Democratic plans to proceed without them.
“That census count has given us a terrific result, better than I think anybody expected,” he said. “We hope that we’ll get all of that data when it comes. But that’s coming in September, we need to do something before June 30th.”
“There’s multiple dates in the Constitution,” Butler explained. “It lays out a June 30th deadline for the legislature to act, and it lays out a deadline that goes all the way to October 5th, that if the legislature doesn’t act, the bipartisan commission takes place.”
Historically, the eight-member panel of bipartisan appointees has ended in gridlock when neither party would agree to the other’s map lines. In the event of a deadlocked commission, the state constitution empowers the Supreme Court to pick a ninth name from a hat to break the tie.
“What they want is a chance to pick out of the hat,” Hernandez said. “That is really what it basically comes down to. It’s a 50/50 chance. That’s their way of getting in there.”
The party with the tie-breaking vote gets to sign off on the final maps, which have to be drawn through the legislative process. That appears to be one outcome House Republican are angling for.
Expense reports show House Republicans are hiring attorneys, redistricting experts, data consultants, and purchasing software and IT equipment — all the tools they would need to draw the maps themselves.
Eleni Demertzis, a spokesperson for House Minority Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs), said, “the majority of the fees are for attorneys/counsel which are necessary to explore all different avenues during the redistricting process.”
One of those avenues would include drawing a name out of a hat, which worked to the advantage of Republicans in 1991. Democrats held the majority in the House and Senate that year, but Republican Governor Jim Edgar blocked their maps, dragging the process beyond the June 30th deadline. Republicans won the name-drawing gamble, and ultimately drew the final maps.
However, Durkin’s spokeswoman refuted Hernandez’s suggestion that Republicans hiring redistricting experts meant they were once again trying to pry the power of the map-drawing pen from Democrats for their own political advantage.
“Your insinuation that somehow we are ‘spending money’ to lure the maps in our favor is offensive and wrong,” Demertzis said. “The General Assembly can still push an independent commission to draw the maps, out of the hands of legislators. It’s understandable though that our colleagues on the other side of the aisle will do anything to gerrymander the maps once again.”
“We have no interest in leaving the fate of our government up to choosing names out of a hat,” Rep. Ryan Spain said. “The stakes are too important. It matters too much.”
Two minutes later, he said, “I would love for Republicans to have a hand in drawing the map.”
“We will be going past June 30th,” Spain said. “Whether it’s through agreement with all parties choosing to work together and finally pursue and make good on the pledge for using independent redistricting principles, or if it’s through legal challenges that will inevitably take place when you draw a map with estimated data that won’t stand up to court scrutiny.”
Republicans have called on Pritzker to keep his 2018 campaign pledge to veto any map drawn by partisan legislators, their staff members, or allies. Since taking office, Pritzker has softened his stance to say he’ll veto an “unfair map.”
Two weeks ago, House Speaker Chris Welch’s staff ushered individual members in and out of a locked room across from the statehouse to preview the outlines of their districts and address members concerns. Republicans later staged a press conference outside the locked door and criticized a lack of transparency.
“I think we still know what their intentions are, right now, even under the cloak of secrecy and the hidden map room, which is to try and draw a map that gives them the greatest political favor possible,” Spain said.
House Democrats used $23,952 of their redistricting funds to hire a locksmith to install a new electronic lock system with a keypad reader. House Republicans also spent $1,536.60 at the same locksmith.
When asked why they used remap funds to hire a locksmith, Spain joked perhaps it was for “someone to try and pick the lock.”
If the Republicans ever did find their way inside the House Democrats’ map room, they might find an old front page headline from the State Journal-Register in 1991 picturing former Speaker Michael Madigan as he presented the new political maps that year. His intentions were no secret.
According to the newspaper account, former Rep. Robert Churchill (R-Antioch) asked Madigan, “Did you consider an alternative that would give Republicans more opportunities to win?”
Madigan replied, “Are you kidding? I thought after you saw the numbers you would quit.”