Editorial: Remaps should empower citizens. They’re empowering the powerful instead. – Chicago Tribune

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editorial:-remaps-should-empower-citizens-they’re-empowering-the-powerful-instead.-–-chicago-tribune

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When campaign season rolls around, politicians can’t get enough of you. They’ll shake your hands on commuter train platforms, flood you with phone calls and mailings, and brainwash you with angry, venomous ad blitzes.

But when it’s redistricting season, politicians would like to see as little of you as possible. They’ve got no interest in involving you, the voter, in the decennial remap process.

Why would they? To them, remaps aren’t an exercise in democracy. They’re a vehicle for political self-preservation.

This year’s redistricting debacle is no exception. At every governmental level — congressional, state legislative, aldermanic — politicians have been carving up voting boundaries with the sole aim of maximizing clout, often while paying little or no heed to census numbers that are supposed to scaffold the process. And they certainly are not listening to voters, aka the people they serve.

It comes as no surprise that Illinois Democrats have come out of their backroom confabs with a new set of congressional maps crafted to give them a 14-3 edge over Republicans. It also isn’t surprising at all that they released the new maps on a Saturday afternoon, when Illinoisans were relaxing, taking in a college football game — anything but checking their iPads and iPhones for the latest redistricting developments.

The only twist in the Democrats’ new congressional map is the decision to rework the 6th District so that freshman Democrat Marie Newman will have to face two-term U.S. Rep. Sean Casten of Downers Grove in the next primary. As for Republicans, they’re shaping up to drop from five U.S. House seats to three, while Democrats look to add a seat from their current 13 seats.

Two incumbent Republicans would be pitted against each other by way of the remap: six-term U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an impressively staunch critic of former President Donald Trump, and Darin LaHood of Peoria, a strong Trump ally. Democrats shouldn’t be straining for ways to make life harder for Kinzinger; he voted for Trump’s impeachment and serves on the Democratic-led panel examining the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

An even more egregious affront to Illinoisans came earlier this year, again courtesy of state Democrats. Democrats engineered a remap that cemented their stranglehold on the General Assembly for the next 10 years. Instead of waiting for population data from the 2020 census — which had been delayed by the pandemic — they rammed through a heavily gerrymandered remap that relied on population estimates. Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed that remap into law, but earlier this month a U.S. District Court panel ruled the Democrats’ redistricting plan unconstitutional.

In its ruling, the court chided Democrats for their actions. “Despite pleas from organizations and public advocates alike for additional time to assess the plan and provide input, the (Democratic) majority caucuses then held hearings and voted on the various iterations of that map within hours of its public release and without releasing data that could have facilitated public feedback.” That’s a takeaway Democrats should heed: It’s always wrong to shut the public out of decennial remaps.

Democrats later passed a new state legislative remap, using actual census data but still gerrymandered in their favor. Still, they never repealed the first remap that was based on population estimates — a hedge against the possibility the second remap wouldn’t hold up in court.

Two remaps on the books at the same time. Gamesmanship? For sure. Best interests of voters in mind? Not on your life.

At City Hall, the redrawing of Chicago’s 50 wards has become a battleground for Latino aldermen looking to capitalize on the ever-growing Hispanic segment of the city, and for the Black caucus, which has seen the Black population drop by nearly 10% in the last 10 years.

The ward map approved a decade ago had 18 majority Black wards and 13 majority Latino wards. Buoyed by census results that show a 5% rise in the city’s Latino population, the City Council’s Latino caucus has proposed a map that would set up 15 Latino-majority wards, 16 majority Black wards, and 15 majority white wards. Black aldermen are digging in their heels. “The Latino Caucus is setting up an unnecessary fight that could have a lasting impact,” Black Caucus Chairman Ald. Jason Ervin, 28th, told the Tribune earlier this month.

That’s the last thing the city needs — an “unnecessary fight” that drags taxpayers through the courts for who knows how long. An “unnecessary fight” that serves the interests of the combatants but leaves Chicagoans without any kind of voice in the process.

There’s an alternative to this aldermanic wrangling that we believe has merit.

A commission of citizens has drawn up an independent ward map that is nonpartisan, respects the city’s diversity and doesn’t carve up communities of need. Relying on citizen input at public, live-streamed meetings, the Chicago Advisory Redistricting Commission created the “People’s Map,” establishing the city’s first Asian-American majority ward around Chinatown, 15 majority Black wards, 14 majority Latino wards, two wards with more than 45% Latinos and 13 majority white wards. Just as importantly, the map keeps largely intact communities that in the past have been fragmented by ward remaps, including Englewood, Back of the Yards, Austin and Logan Square.

This map is a stark departure from the unfair, noninclusive nontransparent remap efforts of the past. And it works as a starting point.

Change Illinois, the citizens advocacy group behind the commission, tells us previous ward remaps “excluded the people’s input about their wards and resulted in oddly-shaped wards that carve up communities among multiple wards, making it harder for people to seek help from their officials and hold them accountable.”

We have for years advocated putting on the ballot a referendum asking voters to approve a state constitutional amendment that overhauls redistricting in Illinois. If passed, the measure would create an independent citizens commission to oversee the decennial remap process. Transparency, fairness and citizen input would be the mandate.

Redistricting may seem like an arcane exercise, but it’s vital to the work of government because it’s the framework for so many decisions our elected officials make — from taxation and education policymaking to infrastructure priorities. If carried out fairly and openly, remaps build citizen trust in politics and politicians. As long as the process is carried out in hidden backrooms, that trust will remain elusive.