By Patrick F. Cannon
In case you’ve been busy and haven’t noticed, democracy is dead in Illinois and in many other states. With the primary election season here in full swing, you are very likely to have little choice of who to vote for, whether you take a Democratic or Republican ballot. But “very little” choice in the primary turns into almost no choice in the general election come November.
Why is this? In Illinois, the district maps were drawn by the Democratic majority after the 2010 Census. Because they could, they drew the map to ensure that as many Democratic lawmakers as possible – both state and Federal – would have so-called safe seats. It’s called Gerrymandering, after Governor Eldridge Gerry of Massachusetts who signed a bill in 1812 that ensured that his party (the then Democratic-Republicans) would have as many safe seats as possible. One of the districts was said to resemble a salamander; thus “Gerry-mander.”
Now, I live in the Illinois 7th Congressional District. Its shape rivals – indeed perhaps surpasses – Gerry’s salamander. It runs from the Chicago lakefront out to Hillside along a fairly narrow band. It includes downtown Chicago and a portion of the lakefront from North Avenue on the north to 47th Street on the south. On its journey to Hillside, it passes through West side neighborhoods including Garfield Park and Austin; then the suburbs of Oak Park, River Forest, Maywood, etc.; and also manages to pick up bits of Westchester and La Grange Park.
In drawing the district, the Democrats made sure it was majority African-American, with a sprinkling of liberal Democrats for good measure. For example, the folks in Oak Park – where I lived for more than 40 years – gave some 80 percent of their votes in the last Presidential election to Hillary Clinton. The Congressman since 1997 has been Democrat Danny Davis (an African-American) who is now 77 and sees no reason to retire. He is essentially unopposed in the primary and will be unopposed in the general election come November. I’ve met him and he’s an amiable, grandfatherly type who has never voted counter to the wishes of the party, and the rest of the Illinois congressional delegation does precisely the same. Oh, and by the way, if the Illinois Republicans had been in power in 2010, they would have done exactly the same.
The only really fair way to redistrict a state would be entirely by contiguous districts of equal population, regardless of race or any other factor. To suggest this is to invite horror. One man or woman, one vote, has been replaced by the notion that African-Americans or Hispanic-Americans must be represented by one of their own; if not, they have been disenfranchised! This supposes that only in this way would minorities be represented. In fact, if contiguous districts of equal population became the norm, there would still be majority minority districts in Illinois and many other states with significant minority populations.
Unfortunately, the state courts have long enshrined identity politics, and the Federal courts have traditionally shied away from becoming involved in what has historically been left to the states. There are some signs of life. Ohioans managed to pass a referendum reforming the redistricting process, joining a dozen or so states that have already established a non-partisan commission of some sort. In Illinois, over 600,000 signatures were collected to put the issue on the ballot, but the petition was rejected by the state courts as unconstitutional. I will only note that the Illinois Supreme Court is elected and is majority Democrat. God bless them, a group called Change Illinois is trying again. I even gave them some money. I guess hope springs eternal!
Of course, even if redistricting is taken away from the majority party, the resulting commissions are likely to still indulge in tailoring their maps to ensure that some votes count more than others. Perhaps a less complicated issue is term limits. You either have them or you don’t. Some states have indeed established term limits at the state level; again, Illinois has always found a way to quash efforts to do so here. As it happens, polls have consistently shown that 75 percent of American voters want term limits at all levels.
By the way, to amend the Federal Constitution, both houses of Congress would have to approve the amendment by two-thirds vote, and then send it to the states for ratification. Three-quarters of the states would have to ratify within seven years for the amendment to become effective. Don’t hold your breath for members of Congress to vote to eventually lose their jobs.
So, when you go to the polls in November and discover you have no choice, please shed a tear for the slow but steady erosion of democracy in Illinois — and the country too.
Copyright 2018, Patrick F. Cannon