Metro-East News

Gerrymandering experts find Illinois seats fair, but conflicts remain

Map of Illinois legislative districts for the metro-east region.
Map of Illinois legislative districts for the metro-east region.

Electoral maps in Illinois aren’t drawn as badly as people may think, according to two researchers whose work will be featured in an upcoming Supreme Court case on gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering, which occurs when legislators draw electoral maps to favor their own party, typically appears to people as erratically drawn voting districts. But that is not the only way to look at the issue.

Another way to measure gerrymandering is by considering the “efficiency gap.”

The efficiency gap is the difference between wasted votes for Democrats and Republicans. Wasted votes are those cast for a losing candidate, as well as those cast for a winning candidate that weren’t needed. The party that is more efficient in winning district races has a greater chance of sending more politicians to public office.

“In a nutshell, Illinois’ plans have had quite small efficiency gaps this (election) cycle at both the Congressional and the statehouse level,” Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a law professor at the University of Chicago and one of the researchers, told the Chicago Sun-Times.

According to data analyzed by the Associated Press, which looked at all U.S. House races on state and national levels for the 2016 election cycle, Illinois’ efficiency gap is relatively low, meaning that both Democrats and Republicans were similarly efficient at winning races and that neither party is currently overrepresented.

In the 2016 cycle, Republicans sent nearly two extra representatives to Springfield, which hewed closely to typical outcomes, and neither party had an appreciable advantage of representatives in Washington, D.C., according to the data.

There are 67 Democrats and 51 Republicans in the statehouse. In Washington, the Illinois delegations includes seven Republicans and 11 Democrats.

Stephanopoulos and co-author Eric McGhee compared the efficiency gap to commonly held understanding of how votes translate into political seats. Typically, each percentage point over 50 percent of a vote means that the party increases its seats by 2 percentage points. That means that if one party gets 55 percent of the votes, it could expect to fill 60 percent of the seats.

Although Illinois appeared relatively even, across the country, Republicans sent to Congress about 22 more representatives than what was expected by their share of votes. Connecticut sent the most “excess” Democrats, at 1.15 more politicians, and Texas sent 3.70 more Republicans than expected.

Greater gains than normal can imply gerrymandering, but not always. Other factors that affect voting outcomes include racial clustering and political culture.

Gerrymandering has a deep history in Illinois, where political maps, drawn every 10 years after new census measurements, have been controlled by Democrats for decades.

One effort to change the system failed in 2016. An amendment from Independent Maps, a Chicago-based group that collected 563,000 signatures to put an initiative on the November ballot to take the power to draw maps out of legislators’ hands, was disqualified by the Illinois Supreme Court.

The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a nonpartisan group that works on election issues, was one of dozens of civic and community organizations that supported the independent map amendment.

Sarah Brune, the Executive Director of the organization, said that though the efficiency gap didn’t spell any great advantage for either major party, it was “unrealistic” that legislative maps wouldn’t have political biases in them.

“I’m really glad this is being considered on a national level,” Brune said about the efficiency gap and gerrymandering, but she said she still wanted to see “local change with the issues we know exist.”

There is an inherent conflict with expecting the party in power not to benefit itself, Brune said. She would like to see that burden removed and the process made more transparent. That would include a public map-making committee that would hold open meetings and a comment period on proposed districts so people can speak about the districts representing them.

Even if the number of representatives accurately reflect the votes they earned, politicians still might not reflect the voters themselves, Brune explained. Splitting voters up into awkward districts makes it difficult for people to know who their representatives are and organize politically. No matter which party holds power, the process creates a temptation to favor those in charge, she said.

“We disagree with the process as it currently stands,” Brune said.

The efficiency gap was a factor in a recent federal appeals case in Wisconsin in which the court determined that Republicans had unconstitutionally gerrymandered the state in favor of their party. The case was accepted by the Supreme Court.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Casey Bischel: 618-239-2655, @CaseyBischel