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Fair maps? Fine. You too, then, Wisconsin

Chicago Tribune

Wednesday, December 5, 2018  |  Article  |  Eric Zorn

Redistricting (78)

Democrats have drawn the political map in Illinois to their advantage, clearly.

 

The final vote totals for the Nov. 6 midterm elections released Monday by the Illinois State Board of Elections show that Democrats won 61 percent of the votes cast in U.S. House races in the state, yet they won 72 percent of the seats — 13 out of 18, instead of the 11 out of 18 that would have almost exactly reflected the Democrats’ share of the vote.

 

One reading of that result is that the way Democrats drew the congressional district boundaries gave the party two more seats than a “fair map” would have entitled them to.

 

All 118 seats in the Illinois House of Representatives were up for election this year (as they are every two years) and Democrats won 62 percent of those seats with 59.8 percent of the overall popular vote.

 

Though these overall totals are somewhat skewed because 42 Democrats and 12 Republicans ran unopposed or with just token opposition, they’re very close to the percentage split seen in the aggregate vote for all statewide offices (governor, attorney general and so on) which went 59 percent for the Democratic candidates.

 

One reading of that result is that the way Democrats drew the boundaries gave the party four more seats in the House than a “fair map” would have entitled them to.

 

And yes, these results at least slightly offend the ideals of representative democracy.

 

But, in context, are they outrageous?

 

In the Wisconsin midterm elections, Republicans won just 46 percent of the overall popular vote for the U.S. House, but 63 percent of the seats — 5 out of 8. The weekly Isthmus newspaper based in Madison reports that Democrats won 54 percent of the popular vote for Wisconsin State Assembly but, due to the Republican-friendly map, only 36 percent of the seats.

 

In the Ohio midterm elections, Republicans won 52 percent of the overall popular vote for the U.S. House, but 75 percent of the seats — 12 out of 16. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that Republicans won 50 percent of the popular vote in state House elections, but 63 percent of the seats.

In the North Carolina midterm elections, Republicans won 50 percent of the overall popular vote for the U.S. House, but 77 percent of the seats — 10 out of 13 — though one apparent Republican victory has yet to be certified due to allegations of fraud. The Washington Post reports that North Carolina Democrats won 51 percent of the popular vote in state House elections, but just 45 percent of the seats.

 

In the Texas midterm elections, Republicans won 50 percent of the overall popular vote for the U.S. House, but 64 percent of the seats — 23 out of 36.

 

Democrats in Maryland won 65 percent of the popular vote for U.S. House but 88 percent of the seats — 7 of 8, while California Democrats turned a 66 percent victory in the overall U.S. House vote into an 87 percent victory (46 to 7) in the races for seats.

 

I will not go through every state — where an analysis of the midterm results by the Washington-based Hill newspaper shows gerrymandering cost the Democrats a total of seven U.S. House seats — but the short answer is: No, Illinois’ results aren’t outrageously skewed, at least not by the low standards set by partisan mapmakers coast to coast.

 

Scott Kennedy, proprietor of the independent, numbers-rich Illinois Elections Data website and a Democratic operative, says the “impact of the map is overblown” by many political analysts in Illinois. “Other factors like candidate recruitment, candidate quality, campaign quality and financial means are far more relevant for explaining why the Democrats have significantly outperformed Republicans,” he said.

 

Majorities of voters routinely tell pollsters that they want bipartisan or nonpartisan control of political mapmaking in order to diminish the impact of gerrymandering. And incoming Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, like outgoing Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, says he wants to implement just such a change.

 

My advice to Pritzker and other left-leaning self-styled reformers: Don’t unilaterally disarm. Strike a deal to hold hands and jump together with Wisconsin, North Carolina or other states where Republicans have drawn district boundaries to their advantage.

 

Sure, it’s noble to try to set a good example, but your foes have proven themselves ruthless, and if you don’t cut a deal, you’re likely simply to lose power in the long run.

 

Rather than go it alone, lead a crusade for a national overhaul of election laws to ban partisan considerations in political mapmaking and, while we’re at it, to set uniform standards for registration, early and absentee voting, voter eligibility, ballot design, vote counting and poll access.

 

Think big. The “blue map” in Illinois is a small problem.