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Southern Illinois could lose another congressman. Will rural voices still matter?

Belleville News Democrat

Monday, February 10, 2020  |  Article  |  By Kelsey Landis

Candidates--Federal (13) , Demographics, Census, Statistics , Redistricting (78)
For the third time in two decades, Southern Illinoisans are facing the loss of a congressional district, raising concerns about a diminishing rural voice in Congress as the population shrinks.

The largely rural 15th Congressional District, which stretches across nearly 15,000 square miles of southern and central Illinois, is the likeliest to be eliminated after the 2020 census, experts said this week.

Democrats, who dominate both the General Assembly and the governor’s office, will have control over drawing the map.

But Republican voters dominate the 15th, so downstate GOP lawmakers are pushing Gov. J.B. Pritzker to make good on his promise to approve a new map that treats their constituents fairly.

Constituents who are steadily dwindling in number. The downstate region has seen some of Illinois’ largest population declines for years. As a result, it lost the 20th District after the 2000 census and the 19th a decade later.

From 2013 to 2018, the population of the 15th District dropped by roughly 14,000, to 690,000, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. A congressional district should have roughly 710,000 residents.

U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, who represented the 19th and 20th before they disappeared, landed in the 15th in 2013. Shimkus is retiring at the end of this term before possibly facing another lost district.

The redistricting calculus means that while a Republican candidate is expected to take the conservative district in November, the winner will likely serve just one term.

That’s frustrating, says Sarah Drone, an Avon saleswoman from Harrisburg in southeastern Illinois.

“We’re already underrepresented around here and we need more representation in Congress,” said Drone, who identifies as an Independent, “but we’re used to it.”

Rural towns like Harrisburg need representatives to help create more jobs and stanch additional population loss, Drone said. Plenty of Harrisburg residents want to leave the state, she said, but can’t afford to move. Nearly half of registered Illinois voters said they wanted to escape Illinois’ high taxes, a 2016 survey by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in Carbondale found.

But if the 15th vanishes, fewer rural southern Illinois voices will be heard in Washington, said Kent Redfield, a retired political science professor from the University of Illinois Springfield.

“The more you take that 15th and divide it into the other districts that might be outside of deep southern Illinois, the less automatic the representation is,” Redfield said. “If the congressman or woman’s home is north of Peoria or in the metro east, then you’ve got significant urban interests that may not be the same as the more rural interests.”

Worrying about Democrats gerrymandering Illinois

Democrats will have almost complete control over shaping the map and are expected to draw one to their advantage, as Republicans do in majority-GOP states. Senate Minority Leader Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, said this gerrymandering leads to the kind of corruption that was exposed in an ongoing FBI investigation into Illinois politicians.

“It gives your party even more power. That leads to corruption and doesn’t fairly serve the people of this state,” Brady said. “It doesn’t mean southern Illinois Republicans don’t share voter interests. They’ve been gerrymandered into a weaker position and aren’t able to influence as much as they’d like.”

Party affiliation in southern Illinois has shifted increasingly Republican in the past 20 years, Redfield said. When the mining and manufacturing industries were stronger downstate, union workers were reliable Democratic votes. Those jobs, and the workers, are gone. Younger people, who tend to be less conservative, have left as well.

Because most of southern Illinois now votes Republican, it will be nearly impossible for Democrats to take control over all the downstate districts, said John Jackson, visiting professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. But they could feasibly take one.

If the 15th disappears, Democrats can draw a map that makes one of the other GOP’s downstate districts, the 12th or the 13th, more competitive, Jackson said. U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, has a firm hold on the 12th, which covers most of deep southern Illinois, though U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, faces a close race in November.

“It’s going to be difficult for the Democrats to draw a map in these three districts that clearly advantages them,” Jackson said. “They will look to places like Belleville and East St. Louis where there’s Democratic strength and they will try to get as many Democrats in (one district) as they can.”

Changing the rules for redistricting

The Republicans’ best hope is to minimize their losses, Jackson said. One way is to build public support for changes to redistricting rules.

“(Republicans) are trying to build public opinion on their side, but it’s not clear if there is enough time or enough political strength to fundamentally alter the system we use,” Jackson said.

Brady, a Republican from Bloomington, said he hopes Pritzker will support a joint resolution amendment that would change the Illinois constitution’s provisions on redistricting. The state senator said the bill, which attracted broad bipartisan support, would make the mapping process fairer.

Voters could weigh in on the amendment if lawmakers manage to get it on the November ballot, Brady said, just in time to change the rules before map drawing begins in 2021.

But the governor did not mention “fair maps” in his state of the state address, raising concerns that he does not favor the idea as part of ethics reform efforts this year. Pritzker, who campaigned on fair redistricting, has the power to veto maps drawn by lawmakers.

During a recent appearance at Illinois State University in Bloomington, Pritzker once again promised to “veto any unfair map that gets presented to me,” but did not elaborate on what he meant by fairness. The governor’s office did not reply directly to a BND inquiry about Pritzker’s plan, referring instead to his comments in Bloomington.

“The governor has promised a ‘fair map,’ the term he used again and again,” Jackson said, “but what a fair map is is in the eye of the beholder.”

Brady said supporters of redistricting reform will have to continue pushing the governor and rallying public opinion.

“It’s our job to put pressure on the governor and the Democrats who support (the amendment) to keep it at the forefront,” Brady said. “The only way the governor can live up to his commitment and perception as well as reality is to help us push for fair maps.”

Republican candidates prepared to serve one term

The prospect of serving one term in Congress didn’t stop six Republicans and four Democrats from entering next month’s primary for the 15th district. Two Republicans have since been removed from the ballot because they did not collect enough signatures, but voters in November are all but certain to elect a GOP representative.

Chuck Ellington, R-Camargo, said he knew he could only serve one term when he entered the race. Carmargo is about 35 miles south of Champaign.

“I went into this full in mind that I could be a one-term congressman,” Ellington said. “I’m not going into this to build a dynasty.”

Ellington, a family doctor, said he is concerned about access to health care in rural southern Illinois communities.

“The rural communities don’t have a huge voice and for us to lose yet another congressional district will silence the rural concerns even more,” he said.