No More Gerrymanders: Illinois' Partisan Plan versus the Fair Voting Alternative

by Lindsey Needham, Sheahan Virgin, Fair Voting Plans // Published October 19, 2011
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Snapshot:

  • Lawmakers in Illinois have recently passed a congressional redistricting plan as required by the U.S. Constitution.
  • The root of the worst problems associated with redistricting lies with winner-take-all elections, in which 50% + 1 of the vote guarantees 100% of the representation.
  • As part of an ongoing series, FairVote has produced a "super-district" plan designed for elections with a fair voting system. Fair voting systems are a constitutionally permissible form of proportional representation and, by allowing voters to participate in a meaningful election, are a far better way to achieve public interest objectives than winner-take-all elections.
  • FairVote's fair voting plan for Illinois would result in more balanced representation and competitive elections.

The Political Context in Illinois

Illinois and the 2010 Census: From 2000 to 2010, Illinois’ population grew slightly, from 12.42 million to 12.83 million, for an increase of 3.3%, as compared to a rate of 8.6% from 1990 to 2000. This rate was significantly below the national average of 9.7%. As a result, Illinois was one of ten states nationwide to lose seats during the 2010 reapportionment process, going from 19 U.S. House seats to 18. This continued a skid dating back to 1980, when the state lost two of its then-24 representatives.

Internally, population shifts appear to hurt congressional Democrats, as Cook County lost residents to the surrounding suburban counties, the respective populations of which grew by anywhere from 15% to over 25%. Racially, Illinois remains predominantly white (63.7%). Latinos (15.8%) increased appreciably as a percent share of the state, while the black population share (14.3%) declined slightly.

Redistricting in 2001 was a somewhat chaotic affair, with divided government – Republicans controlled the governorship and the State Senate, while Democrats were the majority in the State House – leading to a redistricting impasse . Such deadlock forced the state to look to a backup commission, of which Democrats gained control after the name of the tie-breaking ninth member, a Democrat, was randomly drawn.

Democrats, in Control, Push through Partisan Redistricting Plan: In the 2010 election, Republican candidates earned 47% of the statewide vote, a 10-point swing from 2008 that claimed four Democratic incumbents and gave the GOP control of the state’s U.S. House delegation for first time since 2003. Nevertheless, Democrats held on to both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly, and Governor Pat Quinn withstood a robust general election challenge, winning by one percent. Having retained the governorship and majorities in both chambers of the state legislature, Democrats earned control over the 2011 redistricting process. 

Illinois law requires  the state legislature to pass a redistricting map by June 30, with the provision for a nine-person, bipartisan backup commission in the event that the General Assembly cannot complete the task. State Democrats were keen on completing their redistricting map before the final day of the General Assembly’s regular session, on May 31 – any plan passed during a special session would have required a two-thirds supermajority  likely beyond the Democratic Party’s means.

Illinois House Democrats unveiled their redistricting plan on May 27, passing a revised version on May 30 by a party line 63–54 vote over GOP protestations  that the public had been without opportunity to evaluate the eleventh-hour changes. The Democrats in the State Senate approved the House proposal the next day without Republican support, 34–25, sending the redistricting proposal to Governor Quinn, who signed it into law on June 24, calling the map “fair.” Republicans protested, with one state lawmaker saying , “This congressional map is a national embarrassment [that] doesn’t really reflect the type of product that I think the people of this state would be proud of. This is a power grab.” 

Illinois-based Republican consultant David From marveled  at the map as “a work of art, [though] in the wrong direction,” while POLITICO called it a “masterstroke”  that would place Illinois Speaker Mike Madigan among “other storied pols whose mapmaking exploits have become stuff of political legend.” The Washington Post, referring to the infamous 2003 Republican mid-Census redistricting in Texas, derisively referred to the plan as “Delay-lite.”  

Partisan Effects of the Democratic Redistricting Plan: The 18 new Illinois U.S. House districts are unmistakably partisan, boosting Democrats and harming Republicans.  It draws nearly all of the state’s 11 Republicans into districts with other incumbents, while creating 11 districts that favor Democrats.  Such a move leaves each member of the ‘GOP eleven’ with the choice between three equally disagreeable options: wage a primary battle against a Republican colleague, contest a quixotic general election campaign against an established Democratic incumbent in a blue stronghold, or opt for retirement. Assuming all eleven Republican incumbents decided to run for reelection, it is not yet clear exactly where each will find his or her new political home – representatives are not required by the U.S. Constitution to live in the districts they represent.

The most pressing problem facing the Democratic Party was the population loss in the heavily Democratic Chicago area, a decline that under an independent redistricting proposal could have affected adversely the party’s seven Chicago-based incumbents. The Democratic plan, however, methodically expands the city’s solidly liberal districts outward into the suburbs that in 2010 elected four of the GOP’s five freshmen (Joe Walsh, Adam Kinzinger, Randy Hultgren, and Robert Dold) and eliminating the district of seven-term incumbent Judy Biggert. Republicans, noting that the plan sucks GOP-leaning suburban townships into the urban districts of Chicago Democrats, have charged that Democrats , rather than caring about fair representation, are focused exclusively on protecting the party’s incumbents and diluting the voting power of suburban conservative voters (the collar counties are divided between five districts ).

Downstate, Republicans have not fared much better, as Tim Johnson’s old eastern district, which has expanded south, and Bobby Schilling’s western district, which has moved north, have both become significantly more Democratic. In the center of the state, the plan has constructed an open-seat , which unites the Democratic areas of Champaign-Urbana, Springfield, and the Madison County suburbs of St. Louis, with an obvious Democratic lean. Nevertheless, Republican John Shimkus appears relatively safe, and the sudden retirement  of 12-term Democratic incumbent Jerry Costello, who Roll Call labeled the Democrats’ “point-man for redistricting,” , has increased the opportunities for Republicans in the region. The “ill-time retirement” of Costello only serves to highlight the “perils”  to a party of “over-gerrymandering” and spreading its support too thin. 

The Illinois map does face numerous legal challenges. State Republicans have joined with some racial and ethnic minority groups to argue that the new districts are in violation of the Voting Rights Act, which requires districts “friendly” to Latinos and blacks. The GOP lawsuit alleges  that the new map fails to provide Latinos with ample representation. The Latino community, for its part, believes its population growth entitles it to a second VRA district, with the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund criticizing  the plan for favoring “incumbent protection over respect for the Latino community.” The state’s three African American representatives (Bobby Rush, Jesse Jackson, Jr., and Danny Davis) have also expressed concerns  about the map. 

A Fair Voting Alternative in Super-Districts

Time for an Honest, Proportional, and Fair System: These controversies demonstrate the way in which the current system is inadequate: it fails not only to represent accurately the people of Illinois but reduces voters to mere pawns in a grand political game designed to benefit party elites rather than the people. Especially in states affected by reapportionment, there is the impulse to engage in gerrymandering and other highly undemocratic maneuvering.

In contrast to the Illinois state legislature’s politically motivated plan, FairVote's alternative puts voters first. Rather than use a winner-take-all system, which accentuates the effects of redistricting and encourages partisan jockeying, FairVote’s plan combines these gerrymandered districts to form multi-member “super districts” in which a fair voting system can allow far more voters to elect a favored candidate. As our analysis will demonstrate, FairVote’s alternative plan generates competitive elections in every single district and allows for fuller representation of the political and demographic dynamics of geographical areas: what we call “shared representation.”

Under the current winner-take-all system, candidates must receive over 50% of the vote to be sure of winning a seat. Consequently, substantial voting blocs are often left unrepresented. For instance, one party’s candidate could get just one vote shy of the 50% threshold, and all of her voters would lose out on representation. Similarly, if a voter lives in a district that widely favors one party, that voter might feel like his vote does not matter, especially if that voter favors the less popular party. 

With fair voting based in super-districts, on the other hand, nominees from more than one party are nearly certain to represent a district, which enables a more accurate representation of the broad spectrum of political opinion. These multi-seat super-districts also lower the threshold for racial minorities to select a preferred candidate.

Several candidate-based forms of fair voting, notably choice voting and cumulative voting, have been upheld by the courts and fit well with our traditions. Choice voting systems, in which voters rank candidates in order of choice in at-large elections, helped break the power of urban political machines in New York and Cincinnati. It is used currently by Minneapolis in citywide elections. From 1870 to 1980, members of the Illinois House of Representatives were elected using cumulative voting, where voters can cast as many votes as there are seats. Using this fair voting system, nearly all of the districts elected both Democrats and Republicans in every election.

Our Illinois plan upholds U.S. Supreme Court rulings on apportionment while providing fair representation and voter choice for California voters. Fair voting plans in super-districts are legal for congressional elections under the U.S. Constitution, but Congress would need to repeal a 1967 law mandating single-member districts. State and city governments often have the power to adopt fair voting systems under current law.



If FairVote were working from scratch, we could draw the super district lines with more geographical compactness. Because we created the super-districts from the recently approved congressional districts, however, our plan also appear to look rather gerrymandered. Even so, the super-district approach demonstrates that full representation can be attained with a fair voting system even within these highly gerrymandered confines. 

From the 18 congressional districts in Illinois, the FairVote proposal creates four super-districts: one three-seat district and three five-seat districts. Each congressional seat still represents approximately 712,813 people, but using a fair voting system such as choice voting , representation is far more likely to reflect the political opinion and demographic makeup of the state. In a three-seat district, like-minded voters are assured of a representative if they consist of at least 25% of the electorate, while in five-seat district, like-minded voters are assured of a representative if they consist of at least 16.67% of the electorate. 

Super District Breakdown

Super District

Number of Seats

Population Per Seat

Threshold of Exclusion

Districts Combined

1

3

712,813

25% +1

12, 13, 15

2

5

712,813

16.67% +1

2, 14, 16, 17, 18

3

5

712,813

16.67% +1

1, 3, 6, 8, 11

4

5

712,813

16.67% +1

4, 5, 7, 9, 10


Partisanship Analysis: Based on the 2008 presidential election, Illinois has a partisanship index of 58.85% Democratic. The recent plan passed by the state legislature is likely to generation representation that will not reflect the state’s overall partisan split. Based on district partisanship, the Illinois plan would result in 11 Democratic seats (nine safe and two lean), two safe Republican seats, and five toss-ups. 

For the congressional delegation to reflect accurately the Republican statewide partisanship index of 41.2%, the GOP would need to win seven seats.  However, under the gerrymandered Illinois plan, Republicans can secure safely only two seats. For the Republicans to win the seven seats, their candidates would need to succeed in all five toss-up districts. This presents a daunting challenge for the GOP every election year, regardless of the party’s national momentum.

Illinois Plan’s Partisanship Breakdown

District

Population Per Seat

Partisanship (D)*

Safe Seats (D)

Leaning Seats (D)

Toss-Up

Leaning Seats (R)

Safe Seats (R)

1

712,813

77.5%

1

0

0

0

0

2

712,813

77.8%

1

0

0

0

0

3

712,813

55.3%

0

1

0

0

0

4

712,813

77.6%

1

0

0

0

0

5

712,813

67.0%

1

0

0

0

0

6

712,813

48.4%

0

0

1

0

0

7

712,812

86.2%

1

0

0

0

0

8

712,812

58.6%

1

0

0

0

0

9

712,813

65.6%

1

0

0

0

0

10

712,813

59.9%

1

0

0

0

0

11

712,813

58.4%

1

0

0

0

0

12

712,813

52.0%

0

0

1

0

0

13

712,813

52.0%

0

0

1

0

0

14

712,813

47.6%

0

0

1

0

0

15

712,813

40.1%

0

0

0

0

1

16

712,813

47.3%

0

0

1

0

0

17

712,813

57.2%

0

1

0

0

0

18

712,813

41.3%

0

0

0

0

1

Statewide

12,830,632

58.9%

9

2

5

0

2

 *Partisanship percentages are based on an interpretation of the 2008 presidential election. Our source for the data is DailyKos.com. The seats were allocated according to the following ranges: toss-up districts have a partisanship between 46% and 54%, leaning seats have a partisanship between 54% and 58%, and safe seats have a partisanship greater than 58%. This does not reflect incumbent advantages.

In stark contrast, the FairVote super-district plan accurately represents the state’s partisan divide. With a fair voting system, both major parties would be well positioned to win at least one seat in every super-district. Republicans would have a clear advantage to win five seats and be well positioned to add between one or two seats based on the quality of their candidates and the national partisan swing. Democrats would have a clear advantage in nine districts and a reasonable chance to add up to three more. FairVote’s plan also increases voter interest, since almost all Republican and Democratic voters will be able to elect a candidate in their district, who represents their political views – and have a real choice within their party’s candidates as well. 

Once in Congress, representatives from opposing parties would share constituents of super districts and, therefore, have new incentives to cooperate on at least some legislative initiatives. As far as competition, the current Illinois plan offers five competitive districts, but a strong incumbent can make elections in that district uncompetitive; in the super-district plan, every voter experiences a competitive election in every election.

While these partisan breakdowns are based on the current two-party duopoly, the FairVote proposal would open the door for third-party and independent candidates, unlike the single-member district winner-take-all plan. Challengers to the major parties are rarely able to acquire over 50% of the vote, so those voters are typically left unrepresented. FairVote’s super-districts lower the threshold and provide third parties and independents with a better chance to win seats. The FairVote alternative is not just fair for Democrats and Republicans; it is fair for voters of all political opinions.

FairVote Plan's Partisan Breakdown

Super District

Number of Seats

Threshold of Exclusion

Partisanship (D)*

Safe Seats (D)

Leaning Seats (D)

Toss-Up

Leaning Seats (R)

Safe Seats (R)

1

3

25% +1

48.0%

1

0

1

0

1

2

5

16.67% +1

54.2%

2

1

0

0

2

3

5

16.67% +1

59.6%

3

0

0

1

1

4

5

16.67% +1

71.2%

3

1

0

0

1

Statewide

18

-

58.9%

9

2

1

1

5

*The seats were allocated according to the following ranges: toss-up districts have a partisanship ±4% of the threshold, leaning seats have a partisanship 4-8% greater than the threshold, and safe seats have a partisanship greater than 8% of threshold. This does not reflect incumbent advantages.




Race and Voting Power: Under Illinois’ redistricting plan, the state’s four representatives of color are well positioned to remain in office; however, the plan does not offer opportunities for racial minority representation outside of these four majority-minority districts. The three majority black districts have elected the state’s three African American representatives, and they maintain their majority-minority status with this new plan. Although Latinos have become the largest racial minority group in the state, they have the power to select a preferred candidate in just one of the state’s 18 districts. The state’s sole Latino representative, Luis Gutierrez, keeps his Latino majority district intact, but the Latino community lacks the voting power in other districts to elect a candidate of choice.

If Illinois’ congressional delegation reflected the demographic consistency of the state (14.5% black and 15.8% Latino), then both black and Latino communities would have the voting power to elect two preferred candidates each. FairVote’s plan combines these highly concentrated minority districts with other predominantly white districts, but the super-district approach actually enhances opportunities for racial minority groups. 

In the FairVote plan, Latino communities meet the threshold in two super-districts, allowing them to elect at least two preferred candidates. Black communities do not technically meet the threshold under this super-district plan, but they do have strong opportunities to elect a candidate in at least three super-districts. With three popular African American incumbents, the state has a strong chance to keep its African American representation under this alternative system. In addition, black voters are well positioned to be influential in Super-District 1, where their population is more than half of what it takes to be able to win a seat. While the current Illinois plan allows for racial minority representation in four districts, there is no real chance to gain more seats. The fair voting alternative creates many more opportunities for racial minorities to select a candidate who will address their interests in Congress.

Illinois Plan Race Breakdown

District

Total Population

White VAP%

Black VAP%

Latino VAP%

Asian VAP%

White Plurality

Black Plurality

Latino Plurality

1

712,813

37.3%

52.4%

7.4%

2.1%

0

1

0

2

712,813

33.5%

53.8%

11.1%

0.8%

0

1

0

3

712,813

66.3%

4.5%

24.6%

4.0%

1

0

0

4

712,813

26.1%

4.1%

65.9%

3.3%

0

0

1

5

712,813

73.3%

2.7%

16.1%

7.1%

1

0

0

6

712,813

81.6%

2.4%

7.4%

8.0%

1

0

0

7

712,812

30.5%

50.3%

11.4%

6.9%

0

1

0

8

712,812

60.5%

4.2%

22.1%

12.3%

1

0

0

9

712,813

68.0%

8.7%

9.6%

12.6%

1

0

0

10

712,813

65.0%

6.4%

18.1%

9.6%

1

0

0

11

712,813

59.7%

10.7%

21.8%

7.0%

1

0

0

12

712,813

79.7%

15.7%

2.4%

1.2%

1

0

0

13

712,813

83.4%

9.4%

2.6%

3.7%

1

0

0

14

712,813

83.6%

2.5%

9.4%

4.0%

1

0

0

15

712,813

92.9%

4.0%

1.9%

0.6%

1

0

0

16

712,813

88.1%

3.3%

6.5%

1.5%

1

0

0

17

712,813

81.7%

10.0%

6.4%

1.1%

1

0

0

18

712,813

91.8%

3.6%

1.9%

2.1%

1

0

0

Statewide

12,830,632

67.1%

13.6%

13.4%

4.7%

14

3

1


FairVote Plan Race Breakdown



Super District

Number of Seats

Threshold of Exclusion

White VAP%

Black VAP%

Latino VAP%

White Voting Power

Black Voting Power

Latino    Voting   Power

1

3

25%+1

85.3%

9.7%

2.3%

3

0

0

2

5

16.67% +1

75.7%

14.6%

7.1%

4

1 opportunity

0

3

5

16.67% +1

61.1%

14.9%

16.7%

3

1 opportunity

1

4

5

16.67% +1

52.6%

14.4%

24.2%

3

1 opportunity

1

Statewide

18

-

67.1%

13.6%

13.4%

13

3 opportunities

2


Conclusion

Although Illinois Democrats clearly engineered a partisan gerrymander, electoral problems do not rest solely with Democrats and Republicans. Rather, the dysfunction lies with the winner-take-all nature of single-member district elections, which allow district lines to determine most outcomes no matter how they are drawn. In this analysis, we have not touched the blatantly partisan lines that were our building block; we merely changed the rules and showed that fair voting systems in super-districts pay out immediate dividends to all voters. 

If the redistricting games of winner-take-all continue, voters are likely to become even more disenchanted with our political system. Under the Illinois redistricting plan and many others like it across the country, a vast amount of voters are left unrepresented. Many of these congressional elections lack competition or offer just two candidates to the diverse array of voters. It is also clear that one candidate cannot possibly reflect the makeup of her district, as winner-take-all assumes; therefore, we need a new approach will more accurately reflect the makeup of each state. By adopting fair voting in multi-seat super-districts, we can attain a more representative democracy.