For the past decade, Illinois voters have had to live under legislative maps meant not to maximize the health of democracy but to serve the interests of House Speaker Mike Madigan.
The lines were drawn with the clear purpose of helping Democrats and hindering Republicans, and they have done just that. In the 2018 U.S. House races, Democratic candidates got 61 percent of the total votes cast — but 72 percent of the seats (13 of 18).
With Madigan and his party holding unchecked power in Springfield, the approach of the 2020 census held out yet another chance for them to keep the playing field tilted in their favor and prevent voters from having too much effect on the outcomes. Advances in technology promised to make the Democratic advantage even more invulnerable than before.
OUR VIEW: With high court declining to help, it's up to voters to end gerrymandering
The only hope was that the U.S. Supreme Court would use two cases before it to put an end to this abuse. Lower courts had struck down remaps in Maryland and North Carolina — the former of which was designed to help Democrats and the latter to help Republicans By deliberately disadvantaging voters of one party, they ruled, the apportionment plans violated equal protection and First Amendment rights.
But on Thursday, that hope vanished. In a 5-4 decision, the justices rejected the pleas for them to enter this arena and substitute their judgment for the decisions of elected officials.
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“Excessive partisanship in districting leads to results that reasonably seem unjust,” acknowledged Chief Justice John Roberts. But the court found that policing such activity would vest unwarranted power in the judiciary. “Federal judges,” it said, “have no license to reallocate political power between the two political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions.”
This decision is no surprise. The court has consistently declined to take a bigger role in legislative map-drawing, fearing it would be plunging into a dark labyrinth with no hope of an exit.
The U.S. Supreme Court has decided the federal court system can't do anything about gerrymandering. It has ruled that only local lawmakers, th…
“The expansion of judicial authority would not be into just any area of controversy but into one of the most intensely partisan aspects of American political life,” said the majority. “That intervention would be unlimited in scope and duration,” recurring without fail every 10 years.
What the Supreme Court did was tell voters: This is your job, even if it’s not an easy one. In Illinois, citizens have a means to put state constitutional amendments on the ballot. They can put an end to partisan gerrymandering by the General Assembly. All it would take is passage of a statewide referendum turning remaps over to an independent commission.
In November, voters in Ohio, Michigan, Colorado, Missouri and Utah approved measures meant to prevent partisan gerrymandering. Congress, of course, could also require this method for congressional maps.
Popular pressure is the only way to bring about reform. The Supreme Court didn’t save voters in Illinois or other states from the unfairness of partisan gerrymandering. So they will have to save themselves.