Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn made a pitch in favor of gerrymandered legislative districts in a recent column, asserting that to reform Illinois’ district-drawing process while “red” states with Republican legislative control did not, amounted to “unilateral disarmament,” and would therefore be a mistake. And Zorn’s concerns are reasonable but place the wrong entities at the center of the districting process. A political party has no “right to maximize its seats” or even a “right to be treated fairly.”
It is the voter who have the right to representation, and to representatives who truly represent the interests of voters and their communities rather than pursuing the agenda of a given political party.
That should be obvious, shouldn’t it? We do not live in a country with a proportional representation method of allocating its legislative seats. Representatives represent voters directly, not through political parties. If we wished to have proportional representation, then, heck, the Democrats completely control the legislature and the governorship both; nothing would stop them from amending the Illinois constitution to implement this.
And, yes, voters are also represented by their specific legislators rather than by a caucus of legislators of their particular race/ethnicity. Again, if those in power believed that black voters and Hispanic voters’ interests were wholly defined by their black-ness and Hispanic-ness, respectively, well, then proportional representation would be the way to go for that, too. (Yes, I know there are federal and state voting rights laws at play here as well, but it remains troubling that the very notion of representative districts is so wholly demolished in the way this plays out.)
I say this because the Illinois Democrats have revealed their legislative districts for the Illinois House (official map here; link source here; existing map for comparison here). This is not the final map but potentially just the first part of a long process; if the Illinois legislature cannot finalize a map by June 30 of a post-census year, an eight-member bipartisan panel is selected, and if they cannot agree by July 10, a tie-breaking name is drawn from a hat. This procedure was intended to compel compromise, with each side being unwilling to leave the outcome to chance and settling on half a loaf, but, as the Trib reports, the tie-breaking procedure was used in 1971, 1981, and 1991. In 2001, “the legislature left the process to the state’s congressional delegation to draw a compromise map, which state lawmakers then approved,” and in 2011, the Democrats already controlled the legislature and the governor’s office, so they solidified that control with their remap. This year, the Republicans have staked their hopes on a legal challenge around the type of data being used, that would run out the clock on the legislative process that the Democrats would otherwise use to steamroll them, thus forcing the name-drawing. (Sorry, no link; I can’t find my source for this analysis any longer.)
There’s no analysis yet of what sort of partisan split this map will produce, that is, how lopsidedly in favor of Democrats this map would be but let’s look at it visually anyway:
Now, some of these districts don’t look thaaat bad: the ones in the southern half of the state I suppose they figure are mostly going to go to Republicans no matter what, so you might as well make them reasonably contiguous. At any rate, the 115th from the prior map looks like the sort that was drawn to exclude a particular established legislator:
In addition, in the towns to the east of St. Louis, there’s clearly some funny business going on, with a C-shaped district in purple and a green district within:
For what it’s worth, these districts mirror ones now existing (though they’re more extreme), and the carve out actually seems to be racial: the purple district aggregating the black voters for a black (Dem) representative in the 114th (plus enough leftover Republicans once this majority is ensured), with the green district collecting the leftover (white) Democratic voters. The current officeholder, Rep. LaToya Greenwood, won her race with a margin of 57% vs. 43%.
But moving northward: Springfield and Decatur are combined into a single, narrow district. Maybe that’s reasonable enough as Springfieldians and Decaturians might have more in common with their nearby hinterlands. But this district is even narrower now than before:
This district’s rep, Rep. Sue Scherer, won her 2020 race 51.5% to 44.4%. Was this too narrow a margin for comfort, motivating the Dems to shift more Dem voters into the district and shift Republicans out?
But that brings us to the greater Chicago area.
This J-shaped district? Dunno what the rhyme or reason is here. My best guess is that even though DeKalb and LaSalle/Peru are small towns, they are larger than their neighbors, and the algorithms said that another seat would be gained by combining them.
And finally, these creations on the south side of Chicago and the south suburbs:
though, to be fair, there were many similarly bad long-and-narrow creations in the prior map, each of them creating districts of Democrats, and many seemingly designed to create districts “reserved” for black Democrats while tucking in white suburban voters who become a perpetual minority vote in their district as a result. And these narrow finger-districts are the most egregious of all, in so far as individual voters cannot reasonably have a connection to their legislator when there is no community being represented, no neighborhoods, when their neighbors, the folks with whom residents are connected with community organizations, churches, have no common legislator.
Finally, a group called CHANGE Illinois has been pushing for a “fair maps” reform and had previously pushed for a constitutional amendment.
But the Illinois constitution already says these districts must be “compact,” as well as contiguous and substantially equal in population (Article IV, Section 3). Yes, perhaps in the meantime courts have determined that “compact” is a meaningless word legally. But that still doesn’t make it right.
So, yes, there is nothing new under the sun. But Illinois politicians want Illinoisans to believe that they are reformed, that they are now ethically devoted to the common good, rather than in it for themselves. A map such as this, in which the people of Illinois simply, to such an astounding degree, do not have elected officials who represent them and their communities, means that no such claim is to be believed.
*Incidental footnote: How do the demographics of Illinois’ legislators compare to its population in general, in terms of racial/ethnic makeup? The most recent estimates are that Illinois is 61% non-Hispanic white, 15% black, 18% Hispanic, and 6% Asian. Among legislators, 71% are white, 18% are black, 8% are Hispanic, and 1% are Asian.
Are Hispanics unfairly underrepresented? A separate metric is the Citizen Voting-Age Population: here, 69% are white, 11% Hispanic, 15% black, and 4% Asian, and these percentages are much closer to the actual statistics. In any case, there have long been neighborhoods and towns which have a high enough black percentage that gerrymandering strategies can produce the desired result through their combining together of parts-of-town and the creation of multiple districts with “just-enough” desired voters to ensure the end result. But if new immigrants are coming to suburban apartment complexes spread throughout the area, there’s much less that can be achieved through these traditional gerrymandering methods. As the CVAP percentage of Hispanics grows, will Illinois look to other methods of determining who represents Illinoisans in the General Assembly, such as, in fact, a proportional representation system, or will they simply gerrymander ever more determinedly?
A 74% marginal tax rate? Yikes. That’s what some poor elderly pay, when taking into account losing government benefits.
Oh, the irony!
If, back in 2008 when it was on the ballot, the call for an Illinois constitutional convention had passed, if we hadn’t been snookered by our betters who told us to vote no, if we Illinois voters had understood that the state constitution had fundamental flaws — including the pension clause, the provisions granting the House Speaker such substantial powers, the narrow definition of topics eligible for an amendment by means of petition-gathering, and more — then I’ll admit readily that I would have found it entirely acceptable to remove the clause forbidding graduated tax rates in the personal income tax as part of an overhaul. Why should that be in the constitution, rather than simply left for legislators to decide, based on the conditions any any given time?
But as it is, I cannot support the proposed amendment, because the elected officials who are and will be making decisions about tax rates have not left the world of corrupt and broken politics in which a graduated income tax is a recipe for failure.
A simple look at the new tax structure itself makes its flaws apparent. In the first place, there is a significant marriage penalty, as the tax brackets for the lowest four rates are the same for singles and couples. Bizarrely, it is only at the higher income levels that joint filers have a higher bracket level than single filers. What’s more, when a single taxpayer earns more than $750,000 or a couple earns more than $1,000,000, all of their income is taxed at the highest rate. In addition, the tax brackets are not adjusted for inflation or wage increases over time, so that over time, more and more Illinoisans will be subject to the higher rates. These three components of the new tax rates are completely out of line with the way the federal government, any state, or any sensible entity, taxes its residents. In fact, after the new legislation was proposed, I kept expecting these provisions to be revised, but that’s exactly how the bill was passed.
But beyond that, the advertising around the new amendment promises Illinoisans that they can have it all: all the state services they’re used to, improved education funding, property tax reductions, as well as a tax cut for themselves, paid for by the wealthy. This is corrosive to our civil society — and I’m not just speaking of the risk of businesses leaving the state due to the impact on small businesses filing as individuals as well as the corporate tax hike, but of the “us against them” mindset that the tax promotes.
The explanation on the ballot further misleads; as watchdog group Wirepoints observed, the ballot language misleads voters into believing that the constitutional change will only raise taxes of high, not middle-earner taxpayers. It falsely states that the method of taxing higher earners more is how “a majority of states do it” (in reality, it is more common for states to use their graduated tax rates to protect lower earners, while taxing middle- and high earners at the same rate). And it omits the change that removes a provision that there may be only one income tax, leaving open the possibility of adding a tax on retirement income by using a lower tax rate to make it more palatable, for example.
And at the same time, although thankfully we can keep adding to the tally of “years since a governor was sent to jail,” the state of Illinois and its elected officials have not truly committed to changing the way the state operates. Pritzker gives speeches professing “shared sacrifice” but in the end promises Illinoisans that they can have it all, paid for by increasing gambling, pot use, and taxes on the wealthy, and even still, despite massive budget holes facing the state, has made no cuts to payroll. A pension amendment is rejected out of hand. Ethics reforms stall. Madigan stays in power seemingly immune to scandals surrounding him, defended rather than being called to account by his party.
It is not sufficient merely to profess that Illinois is, or will be well-governed. To deserve its citizens’ trust and be given this new taxing power, the legislature must prove it has reformed. And it has failed to do so.
Dear readers — please pardon the dust! I’m in the middle of switching servers and doing some remodeling!
Joel Osteen may not be a household name, but he’s a familiar face among the inspirational books at your local Target. Literally – his books, with titles such as “Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential” and “Next Level Thinking: 10 Powerful Thoughts for a Successful and Abundant Life,” feature his big smile on the front cover. He’s one of those preachers about whom it’s best to say that he identifies as Christian, because the message that he preaches, given the name Prosperity Gospel, doesn’t look all too much like actual Christian doctrine. Instead, he tells his audience, in his 56,000-seat converted-stadium Lakewood Church, and in his books, that they are made for greatness if only they “Name and Claim” the material prosperity that is the destiny of all who have enough faith.
It’s the sort of belief that’s routinely mocked by the satire site The Babylon Bee, with such articles as “Report: Imprisoned Chinese Christians Maintaining Faith By Secretly Reading Smuggled, Tattered Copy Of ‘Your Best Life Now’“, “Joel Osteen Targets Millennials With New Book: ‘You Can Even!’“, and the Snopes fact-checked classic “Joel Osteen Sails Luxury Yacht Through Flooded Houston To Pass Out Copies Of ‘Your Best Life Now’,” which “reports” that:
Osteen had his on-call yacht captain steer the large vessel through the flooded streets of the city, pulling up to survivors stranded on their roofs and on the roof of their cars as the prosperity gospel preacher smiled, waved, and threw out signed editions of the bestselling positive thinking book.
“Believe and declare you are coming into a shift!” Osteen yelled through a bullhorn, according to reports. “God wants His best for you! Enlarge your vision, develop a healthy self image, and choose to be happy!”
“When you think positive, excellent thoughts, you will be propelled toward greatness!” he called out to one family floating on a raft on a freeway-turned-river, whose earthly possessions had been entirely destroyed the previous day.
And when I listen to Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, in his speeches and interviews, I hear a lot of Prosperity Gospel hucksterism. Oh, sure, he doesn’t want us to send him “seed money,” but he wants us to believe — to believe that all that ails the state of Illinois is negative thinking, and what’s needed to fix the state is to name and claim our future prosperity by believing that the state is doing well and destined for more business investment.
In an interview at the Economic Club of Chicago back in November, he said,
We spent years where the leader of the state and allies were spending hundreds of millions of dollars to tell all of us how bad the state is. . . . The narrative we need to change is that we can’t solve these problems. . . . The reality is these are hard . . . . we need to focus on . . . pensions, property taxes, balancing the budget, paying down our bill backlog, and growing jobs in the state. . . . But the narrative about Illinois is we are a state on the rise.That we’ve had our challenges, that’s for sure. That we were going in the wrong direction, but we are turning the ship in the right direction, and we are powering ourselves forward.”
(This is my transcription paired with an additional citation from Wirepoints.)
And in his State of the State speech earlier this week, Pritzker said,
Those who would shout doom and gloom might be loud – using social media bots and paid hacks to advance their false notions – but they are not many. You see, we’re wresting the public conversation in Illinois back from people concerned with one thing and one thing only — predicting total disaster, spending hundreds of millions of dollars promoting it, and then doing everything in their power to make it happen.
I’m here to tell the carnival barkers, the doomsayers, the paid professional critics – the State of our State is growing stronger each day.
Is Illinois’ economic well-being and financial state improving? It’s still second from the bottom in “taxpayer burden” according to the watchdog group Truth in Accounting. Chicago is likewise second-worst among the 75 largest cities. Among the 10 largest cities, Chicago is worst in terms of total debt (city, county, and state) taxpayers face — and I presume that if they’d had the resources for a more extensive analysis, Chicago would still be at the bottom. Watchdog group Wirepoints compiled a long list of unpleasant narratives, including a worst-in-the-nation credit rating, one notch above junk, falling home prices, and rankings of news outlets such as U.S. News and World Report (worst state in the nation for fiscal stability), Kiplinger (least tax-friendly), and WalletHub (highest tax burden).
Who are the hucksters and carnival barkers? It’s Pritzker himself who fits the bill, promising voters that a graduated income tax would mean forgoing shared sacrifice in favor of a tax cut for nearly everyone and would save the day not only by filling budget holes but by generating extra cash for property tax reductions, and believing that sufficient levels of optimism will lead corporations to eagerly locate new offices and factories in the state.
And as for me — well, if you can tell me how to turn my frustration at pension debt into the business of being a paid hack, I’m all ears.