A ‘Muted Chorus’ of Democracy: Support for Ending Partisan Gerrymandering Peaks in Illinois Despite Quashed Ballot Measure

Gerrymandered district at the U.S. Supreme Court

A new poll released by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale shows voters overwhelmingly favor allowing an independent commission to take over the redistricting process in Illinois. Of likely voters, 72 percent support the idea, while only 18 percent are opposed.

The poll comes on the heels of a recent Illinois Supreme Court decision, Hooker v. Illinois State Board of Elections, which blocked a ballot initiative to establish precisely such a commission. By a narrow 4-3 vote along party lines, the Illinois Supreme Court held the measure was unconstitutional.

The “Independent Map” amendment would have established an independent commission to take over the redistricting process and end the winner-take-all partisan system currently used by the state legislature. But the Court’s majority found the measure fell outside the narrow requirements for ballot initiatives that amend the Illinois Constitution. According to Article XIV, section 3 of the state constitution, only ballot initiatives that change the “structure and procedure” of the legislature are allowed. The proposed expanded duties of the Illinois Auditor General within the amendment did not comply with these “strict limitations,” explained the Court.

The ruling came to the dismay of the amendment’s numerous supporters. According to the Chicago Tribune, over “563,000 Illinois voters signed petitions to put the Independent Map amendment on the ballot in a multimillion-dollar drive backed by two dozen businesses, consumer groups and public interest organizations.” 

More importantly, it came at the expense of the democratic process. As the Campaign Legal Center explained in its amicus brief in Hooker, advances in map drawing technology have allowed incumbents to decrease the competitive seats in Illinois. The rate of uncontested elections has steadily risen from around 22 percent in 1982 to more than 60 percent in 2016. This is a trend that does not bode well for a state whose residents already have the lowest level of confidence in their state government in the United States.

Hooker’s dissenting Justices echoed the “palpable sense of frustration by voters of every political affiliation.” Their opinions read as a eulogy to self-governance. “Those elected have an incentive to draw maps that will help them remain in office[,]” wrote Chief Justice Garman, “[but] government exists only to serve the governed.” Justice Thomas concluded more dramatically, “The whimper you hear is democracy stifled. I join that muted chorus of dissent.”

The new polling, however, shows the ruling has not muted the Illinoisan desire to end partisan gerrymandering. In fact, the 72 percent support for the commission is at an all time high since polling began in 2010, and represents an eight point increase since the spring. “The massive support for these . . . measures is evidence of just how upset Illinois voters are with the way things are done in Springfield,” said David Yepsen, the director of the Institute.

Optimistic evidence, perhaps, of rising decibel levels.