The Illinois House Redistricting Committee held its first hearing last week on new congressional and judicial subcircuit district maps at the Michael Bilandic Building in Chicago. Another half-dozen hearings were scheduled for the following seven days to redraw the maps, which have to be reconfigured after each decennial census.
The hearings aren't likely to matter a whole lot when push actually comes to shove. After all, legislators paid next to no attention to public input during the General Assembly's own remap process last spring and summer. A new map passed in the spring by super-majority Democrats was redrawn in the summer when more detailed data was released by the federal government.
But an updated lawsuit filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund could matter.
MALDEF alleges that the revised legislative district map created fewer "opportunity districts" – where more than half the voting age population is Latino - than the state currently has. This despite the fact that the voting age population of Illinois went from 8% in the 2010 census to 11.2% in the most recent count.
This seems like a pretty straightforward argument to non-lawyers like me. But the Democrats have never seemed at all concerned that they will lose this or any court case. Even when given an opportunity to redraw the maps, not much changed. And not to mention that the chairs of both the House and Senate Redistricting Committees are Latinx.
Why the confidence?
We've seen a whole lot of news media coverage of the plaintiff's case against the new maps. But the defendants have mostly stayed silent because the issue is under litigation, so their position is less understood. I decided to seek out a top source who could help me understand what the Democrats are thinking.
"Remember, you're drawing a map for the next 10 years," the Democratic attorney with years of experience dealing with redistricting explained to me. "You're not only looking at what the district looks like now, but you're looking at what the districts are going to look like in the next [10 years]."
There are several factors to consider when drawing maps in Latino areas, the lawyer explained, including voting age population (because Latinos tend to skew much younger than the population as a whole), the specific area's citizenship rates (a statistic not measured by the Census, but can be generally estimated using American Community Survey data) and sometimes competing factions within the "Hispanic" umbrella (Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, for instance).
"If you want to ensure that Latinos can win a district," the lawyer said, "you have to make sure that the citizen voting age population is high enough where they will continue to be able to elect their candidates of choice. So if you have an area with high non-citizenship rates, you want to have higher levels of citizen voting age population."
And while several of the new districts' voting age populations are low, that will change over time as the districts' residents get older and eventually strengthen Latino candidate chances long before the next Census in 2030. The Democrats also have sophisticated arguments about population movement trends to buttress their cause.
The differing factions within the broad-brush of Latino voters means voters can sometimes be played off against one another, which has to be another consideration when drawing the maps. "Latinos don't necessarily coalesce," the attorney continued, pointing to traditional rivalries between Mexican and Puerto Rican voters.
Beyond regional origin differences, national political trends can also have a major impact. For instance, Asian-American Rep. Theresa Mah (D-Chicago) capitalized on the 2nd House District's strong Latino support for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary to woo progressive Latino Democrats in her bid against a "regular" Latino Democrat.
And that brings us to something I've mentioned before in other places. The Democrats contend the evidence clearly shows white Illinois voters are willing to vote for candidates of color at multiple levels. This evidence, they say, is what helped them win the last legal challenge to their remap. And American University's Allan Lichtman testified to just that evidence in his late May testimony to a joint redistricting committee hearing.
So, if the Democrats can prove up their reasoning behind their map-making decisions and show again that Illinois elections aren't racially polarized by white Illinoisans only voting for white candidates, they believe they'll walk away with a court win this time as well.
I guess we'll see.