FILE - Redistricting reform in Illinois, independent maps, gerrymandering

Gov. J.B. Pritzker sent out one of the most popular tweets of his term following Iowa’s caucus debacle Monday night, calling for Illinois to replace the Hawkeye State in holding the nation’s first presidential primary elections in 2024.

Illinois has some work to do before taking that torch.

After all, the Illinois Secretary of State’s office is scrambling to explain how hundreds of people who identified themselves as non-U.S. citizens ended up on the voter rolls, how thousands of ineligible 16-year-olds had their information sent to election officials, and how hundreds of formerly incarcerated Illinoisans had their voter registrations mistakenly canceled.

Beyond that, Iowa remains the electoral envy of Illinois on at least one important measure: fair maps.

House Speaker Mike Madigan first rose to the speakership in 1983 through his mapmaking prowess, and has used the power of that pen to reward allies and punish enemies for three of the last four decades.

That doesn’t happen in Iowa.

In fact, Madigan’s former chief of staff Tim Mapes went toe-to-toe with Iowa’s Senate president in a mapmaking debate four years ago. The two in 2016 spoke on a panel in Chicago sponsored by the National Council of State Legislatures.

“Legislators like to be involved in this state on how they frame their districts. Whether they like all of it is another thing,” Mapes said. “But they like to be involved, and it’s still a big part of what we do.”

Meanwhile, Iowa has an independent commission draw the state’s legislative map every decade.

“The legislature has absolutely nothing to say about how these lines are drawn. Just ‘yay’ or ‘nay,’” said former Iowa Senate President Pam Jochum, a Democrat. She boasted that Iowa’s maps have not been challenged in court since 1970.

“Senator, great ideas for Iowa,” Mapes responded. “But they’re a little different in Illinois.”

Mapes has since been ousted from Madigan’s office amid allegations of sexual harassment.

Pritzker ran on ending Mapes’ flippant retort.

During his gubernatorial campaign, he told Springfield political blogger Rich Miller that he would veto any map “that is in any way drafted or created by legislators, political party leaders and/or their staffs or allies.” He also said Illinois should amend the constitution to create an independent commission to draw political maps following the 2020 census.

The governor is now going back on that promise. He didn’t mention maps at all in his recent State of the State address. And when asked about it, he pledged only to “veto any unfair map that gets presented to me.” That leaves a world of daylight for Madigan shenanigans.

The most popular effort in the General Assembly to establish fair maps – a bipartisan constitutional amendment filed by Democratic state Sen. Julie Morrison – has not received Pritzker’s blessing.

Some political insiders have pushed back on independent mapmaking for what they claim are pragmatic reasons, noting that on some measures Illinois gerrymandering is not as extreme as it is in other states.

But purely mathematical measures of mapmaking don’t account for the problem at hand: the power of political leaders to favor some lawmakers and punish others through boundary lines, or the perception of such power.

Fair maps would chip away at this privilege for the state’s most powerful politicians.

Another pushback is that Pritzker shouldn’t put a redistricting constitutional amendment on the ballot in November, as it may muddy the waters for his progressive income tax hike referendum.

Of course, Illinois voters would love an opportunity to support fair maps at the ballot box. But instead of a constitutional amendment, Pritzker could instead ask the General Assembly to simply pass a statute establishing an independent map commission. That commission would draw a map on which lawmakers would vote up or down. No constitutional amendment required.

That’s what Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is poised to do. Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel infamously drew one hostile alderman’s home out of his ward after the 2010 census. Since taking office, Lightfoot has pushed for an independent citizens' commission to redraw Chicago's 50-ward map.

At the state level, former Democratic state Sen. Martin Sandoval first took his seat in Springfield thanks to the remap following the 2000 census and Madigan’s political clout. The speaker was seeking support from Hispanic political leaders for his daughter’s run for Illinois attorney general, so he ensured Sandoval faced no opponents in the 2002 Democratic primary for the newly drawn 12th Senate district on Chicago’s Southwest Side.

On Jan. 28, Sandoval pleaded guilty on federal charges of bribery and tax fraud, and faces up to 13 years in prison.

Illinois might be looking down its nose at Iowa this week. But until the Land of Lincoln gets its own house in order, that pride should be short lived.

Austin Berg is a Chicago-based writer with the Illinois Policy Institute who wrote this column for The Center Square. Austin can be reached at aberg@illinoispolicy.org.

Contributing Columnist

Austin Berg's award-winning work has been featured in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, and he has appeared on ABC 7 Chicago and WTTW. Berg was also the writer of the documentary film “Madigan: Power. Privilege. Politics.”