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Local News

Hyper-partisan gerrymandering creating lack of competitive state elections

It's the voter’s choice … sort of

Voting for your representative is a sacred right.

But do voters always have a real choice when they cast their ballot?

In January when Gov. Bruce Rauner visited the Herald-News for a Q&A session, he talked about the lack of competitive state elections as one of his major concerns. 

“Democracy doesn’t work well on a one-party basis, and we’ve had a map that’s been drawn by [House Speaker Michael] Madigan for the last 20 years, and it’s gotten us in a place where the districts are gerrymandered,” Rauner said. “There’s no competition.”

Rauner added that whether candidates are Democratic or Republican, they should have to work for the votes of their constituents. 

Ed Ronkowski, former Will County Republican Party chairman, agrees with Rauner. 

“That’s because of Madigan’s exquisite gerrymandering,” Ronkowski said. “We’re the worst gerrymandered state in the union.”

To be fair, there are a few other states that might take the cake on gerrymandering, but it is true that the Democratic Party in Illinois has the decided advantage. The Democrats hold a majority in the House of Representatives (67 of 118) and a supermajority in the Senate (37 of 59). 

In state Senate races involving Will County in 2016, five of the seven races only had one party field a candidate. In the two Senate races that had two candidates, both races were easily won. 

Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant, D-Shorewood, beat Republican Michelle Smith by seven points to represent the 49th District. In the 38th District, Sue Rezin, R-Morris, beat Democrat Christine Benson by about 30 points. 

Will County voters saw a similar phenomenon in the House, with 11 out of the 15 local races having only one party field a candidate. The races in which there were two candidates saw the winner earn an average margin of victory of 24 points. 

Interestingly, Ronkowski’s argument is a similar one that Democrats in Wisconsin are making about their state map in the Gill v. Whitford Supreme Court case now being considered. Wisconsin Democrats argue that Republicans in the state, after winning the majority in 2010, gerrymandered the maps in an extremely partisan way that, despite losing the popular vote across the state, Republicans won a solid majority in the state Legislature. 

Ronkowski said that to be consistent, he does not agree with the Wisconsin Republicans and supports a nonpartisan drawing of General Assembly districts. He prefers using modern technology that can draw fair and competitive districts in Illinois. 

Will County Democratic Party Chairman Scott Pyles also expressed concern about the lack of competitive elections, although he seemed less explicit than Ronkowski. 

“I’m sure that everybody would like to see a more competitive environment,” Pyles said about state-level races. “There are some issues, there’s no doubt.”

He added that competitive elections could make it more likely for the General Assembly to reach a compromise on big issues. This is because when an incumbent candidate from either party is in a solidly red or blue district, they only have to worry about a primary challenge, usually from a candidate more ideologically liberal or conservative. Therefore, more moderate candidates might need to change their position or be voted out. 

Pyles said that voters in Will County were fortunate to have the Democratic legislators they do, specifically mentioning state Reps. Larry Walsh Jr., Natalie Manley and Bertino-Tarrant.

Ronkowski seemed to agree with this idea of further polarization.

“If you have non-gerrymandered districts, you would have people going to Springfield on the fact that they stood on centered stances,” he said.

But still, Ronkowski said there is a reason for political differences between the parties and for electing reliably conservative candidates for Republicans. 

“Yes, [compromise] is good,” he said. “But it depends.”

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