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Local Column

Views: Gerrymandering ruling was just boneheaded

SPRINGFIELD – This past week wasn’t a good one for democracy.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it’s just fine with partisan gerrymandering. 

In fact, in its 5-4 decision, it went so far as to say that federal courts have no business intervening if Republicans or Democrats unfairly draw legislative boundaries. 

It doesn’t get any more boneheaded than this.

After all, more often than not, when we step into the voting booth, we have no choice in candidates.

Back in 2016, I asked Ballotpedia to analyze 2016 Illinois election filing data.

The organization  found that in 67% of Illinois legislative districts the candidate, usually an incumbent, was unopposed.

Yes, you read that right. More than two-thirds of the time, voters have only one legislative candidate to “choose” from. And in the remaining one-third of districts, the opposition is usually nominal.

Candidates don’t run because they know a person of their political party can’t win in the district where they live.

In Illinois, this process of gerrymandering benefits Democrats. On the federal level, it tends to benefit Republicans. 

But the group that most certainly doesn’t benefit is voters.

Gerrymandering is almost as old as the republic itself.

Once upon a time, politicians would sit in smoke-filled rooms with pencils and maps and draw boundaries to their advantage.

But now the process is far more sophisticated, with computer programs using complex mathematical formulas and personal data on individual voters to predict voting behavior. 

“Now you can essentially program an algorithm and have it produce 3,000 different maps in a matter of minutes and you can learn so much about someone with it out on the internet. You can get down to the block level and figure out someone’s voting patterns over the years,” said Madeleine Doubek, executive director of Change Illinois, a group that advocates for nonpartisan maps in the Land of Lincoln. 

As Republicans captured state legislatures around the country, they have been the primary beneficiaries. Aided by sophisticated software, they have drawn oddly shaped voting districts to favor their party’s candidates. 

For example, after the 2010 census Republicans drew the map in North Carolina. Although the popular vote is nearly evenly divided between the two political parties, Republicans hold 10 of state’s 13 Congressional seats.

In Illinois, the story is much the same, only the Democrats have drawn the legislative districts to their advantage. Doubek said that although there is strong support for nonpartisan maps among rank-and-file lawmakers, legislative leaders such as House Speaker Mike Madigan will determine whether the reforms are ever voted upon.

It’s a tough sell.

After all, Madigan is a master of the dark art of drawing legislative district boundaries to ensure that he hangs onto a Democratic majority in the House -- and his hold on power.

For decades, he and his minions have drawn legislative districts so craftily that in most races it’s a foregone conclusion which party will represent a given area.

When districts are drawn in this manner, lawmakers shift their allegiances from the voters to the mapmaker. That is not good for a democracy.

Accountability to the voters is supposed to be the cornerstone of our system of government. With Supreme Court decisions such as this one, our society suffers.

After all, in a democracy, voters should decide.

• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter.

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