If you thought that Illinois congressional and legislative redistricting was a mystery, take a closer look at what Gov. Pat Quinn and mostly Democratic lawmakers have conjured up.
The recently signed and deceptively named Illinois Voting Rights Act of 2011 requires that redrawn legislative districts conform to the most arcane and divisive rules yet seen for bestowing special treatment on "racial and language minorities." The new law directs that new legislative districts, reflecting the 2010 census, "shall be drawn" to "create crossover districts, coalition districts, or influence districts" to the benefit of racial and language minorities.
An act of contortion: Look at Illinois' 17th congressional district, represented by Rep. Robert Schilling (R).
What the heck are those, you ask? Bear with me; I've got to quote directly from the law itself so you can fully appreciate the absurdity of it:
Crossover district: One in which a racial or language minority "constitutes less than a majority of the voting-age population but where this minority, at least potentially, is large enough to elect the candidate of its choice with help from voters who are members of the majority and who cross over to support the minority's preferred candidate."
Coalition district: One in which "more than one group of racial minorities or language minorities may form a coalition to elect the candidate of the coalition's choice."
Influence district: One in which "a racial minority or language minority can influence the outcome of an election even if its preferred candidate cannot be elected."
The intent is to avoid creating districts that slice up and dilute the power of racial and language minority communities. Quinn signed the law in Chicago's Chinatown, whose political power, he said, had been weakened because it was sliced up into parts of four legislative districts.
Here's how to describe the horse trading that will result more succinctly: "I need for you to take 20 precincts of majority white voters out of my district and for you to give me 20 precincts of your Hispanic voters, so that they'll form a coalition with my African-American voters to ensure my re-election. What do you want in return? My support for your bill to tax horse droppings?"
Election law and its case law have come more like astrophysics in their intricacy and perplexity, so I can't help you if you want to know how we came to this point. But for all the calls to end "divisiveness" and racial politics, it's hard to imagine how this law will do it. The U.S. Supreme Court once declared that a district's extremely irregular boundaries -- like this law is bound to create -- can lead to only one rational conclusion: It was race-based. So, drawing legislative boundaries based on race once was illegal. Now, the law mandates it.
Imagine the huge fees awaiting lawyers who will swing into action to challenge boundaries drawn on the basis of the vague and squishy standards that this law prescribes. Illinois redistricting laws and procedures long have been politically and laughably self-serving, but this law makes them even wackier.
Apparently, this law didn't get much scrutiny because it was enacted with the more heralded and companion Redistricting Transparency and Public Participation Act. By requiring at least four public hearings on proposed redistricting plans, it's supposed to expose the backroom dealing that characterized all previous remappings. Sure.
Congressional and legislative maps already are a bewildering mix of cubist art, with boundaries running helter-skelter in directions and shapes defying logic. Well, they're logical if your highest priority is to protect incumbents of either party -- in whose hands redistricting power resides. But, they also defy the Illinois Constitution, which requires that they be "compact."
This law will give us even more squirrelly shapes and lines, as mapmakers attempt to draw borders that at once conform to their own interests and to the contortions mandated by the new "voting rights" act. That pattern will be compounded because Chicago and Cook County lost population, according to the 2010 census, while collar and outer counties gained population.
Does it matter if districts aren't compact? Why shouldn't they be drawn to represent "communities of interest," even if those interests are based on race or ethnicity? Why not extend the communities of interest to other demographics, such as religious or generational cohorts? Or income and education levels? Family size, sexual orientation, class, culture and language? Sorry, we're already doing language.
Where does it end?