April 01, 2013

Simon Institute will examine Illinois’ redistricting

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A symposium featuring several leading experts on legislative and congressional redistricting efforts in other states will examine Illinois’ current practice and what has worked elsewhere.

The conference, hosted by Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, will touch on how other states accomplish redistricting and whether those ideas might work here.  The Institute’s “Who Holds the Crayons? How Other States Draw Legislative District Lines,” is April 30, at the Inn at 835, 835 S. 2nd St., Springfield.

David Yepsen, Institute director, said the focus is how large, diverse and irregular states such as California and Florida changed redistricting while still complying with the Voting Rights Act.  The topic is one of the most important, albeit, least sexy issues facing Illinois, he said.

“The way Illinois draws legislative and congressional district lines is a way for incumbents to keep themselves in power by drawing their own districts,” he said.  “It amounts to political leaders choosing their constituents instead of the other way around.”

The conference will feature panel discussions and the release of an Institute poll on the way Illinois voters feel about redistricting.  At 9 a.m., Morgan Cullen of the National Conference of State Legislatures will provide a national overview of redistricting in a morning keynote address.  At 12:30 p.m., Peter Wattson, former secretary of the Minnesota State Senate, will deliver a keynote address.  At 2:30 p.m., Yepsen, and David Ellis, former chief legal counsel to Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, D-Chicago, will take part in a discussion, “Be Careful What You Wish For.”

Three panel discussions during the day feature leading state and national redistricting experts who will look at the issue’s impact in specific states: California and Arizona; Illinois and Iowa, and Florida and New Jersey.

A complete symposium schedule, including panel discussion topics and presenters, is available at paulsimoninstitute.org/.  To register, contact Carol Greenlee, Institute project coordinator, at 618/453-4078 or by email at cgreenlee@siu.edu.  Online registration is also available at illinoisredistricting.eventbrite.com/.

Conference funding comes from the Institute’s endowment and grants from The Joyce Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

Redistricting in legislative districts occurs every 10 years after the census and reapportionment.  In Illinois, the General Assembly is responsible for redrawing the congressional and legislative political boundaries.  Public hearings were a part of the state’s 2011 redistricting efforts.

When politicians are left to draw redraw districts, there is less competition and they can become less responsive to constituents, said Yepsen, adding that when a district favors one political party, an incumbent likely only needs to win a primary to retain their seat.

“That means the politician has a real incentive to just keep the individuals and groups in the party base fired up and happy and not try to work across the aisle or reach out to independent voters.  Neither Democrats nor Republicans want to alienate these base voters, with the result that spending increases without tax increases.”

In Illinois, for example, the result is “some of the biggest financial problems faced by any state in the country,” Yepsen said.  Other states, meanwhile, give the power to citizen commissions to use computers to draw district lines without regard to party affiliation or where incumbents live – which opens up new districts and makes existing ones more competitive.

While the Institute will not endorse any specific plan, the symposium follows a long tradition by Institute founder and former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon and former director Mike Lawrence of seeking ways to improve redistricting in the state.

“Now is the perfect time to examine redistricting because we can see how the systems worked in those states in 2012,” Yepsen said.  “And we are years away from having to do another redistricting in Illinois so the discussion can be separated from discussion of individual legislators and legislative leaders.  People can be more objective about redistricting and we can get the personalities out of it.”