CHICAGO, IL. —
The next time Illinois voters elect U.S. congressmen, the state's political map could look quite different, including less representation in the central and southern parts and Chicago-area districts with larger Hispanic populations.
While no one knows yet what the state's congressional districts will look like, Illinois will definitely lose one U.S. House seat before the 2012 election, U.S. Census Bureau officials said Tuesday. The news signaled the start of the once-a-decade political finagling over boundaries.
The census is used every 10 years to reapportion 435 congressional seats among 50 states. Even though Illinois' population grew more than 3 percent — from 12.4 million in 2000 to 12.8 million this year — the state will lose a seat because of population booms in the South and West.
The loss, which drops Illinois' number of seats from 19 to 18, was widely expected. Nine other states also lost seats.
Drawing the political map is a tedious and politically charged process that protects strongholds, affects influence in Washington and can make or break political careers. "Redistricting is the most political activity that occurs in a decade," said Chris Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois in Springfield. "It's almost purely about who gets what and who wins what seat."
Federal law requires lawmakers to divide the state into districts that are nearly equal in terms of population. They and their staff members will spend the next few months analyzing population data and considering geography, race and political interests as they do this.
Unlike in many other states, Democrats in Illinois have an advantage in redistricting. They control both chambers of the General Assembly and the governor's office, which must approve the new districts. Also, experts say Republican areas in central and southern Illinois are the ones that have been slowly losing people.
"It could be good news for Democrats," said U.S. Rep. Phil Hare, who lost a former Democratic stronghold to tea party-backed GOP challenger Bobby Schilling in November, but could benefit from redrawn lines if he decides to run again in 2012.
His sprawling 17th District hugs a long stretch of the state's western border but juts into central Illinois to include Decatur and portions of Springfield. Hare said lines could be drawn to pick up more Democratic areas from Republican Rep. Don Manzullo's 16th District.
Another scenario includes making two districts from the 17th District and two others represented by Republican Congressmen Aaron Schock and Tim Johnson.
And then another possibility is more compact Chicago area districts with larger Hispanic populations. Census data so far suggests rapid growth among Hispanic populations, particularly in Chicago-area neighborhoods and suburbs. States are required under the Voting Rights Act to respect the interests of minority voting blocs, which tend to support Democratic candidates.
Illinois Republican Party chairman Pat Brady warned Tuesday that the GOP would push back if the Democrats in Springfield become too "heavy handed." He appealed to Gov. Pat Quinn to make sure that Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton play fair.
"When it's too much one-party control, there's unintended consequences, and it's going to backfire," Brady said. "I don't think for a second that (Illinois House Speaker) Mike Madigan's not going to shove this right down our throat."
Steve Brown, a spokesman for Madigan, said that the Illinois process will comply with federal election laws.
Officially, the state legislature comes up with a plan and approves it like a bill. It also requires the governor's signature. In cases of deadlock, Illinois leaves the key decision over which party gets to draw the political map to chance. In years past, the secretary of state has picked which party controlled the process out of a replica of Lincoln's stovepipe hat.
The process, outlined in the 1970s Constitution, can drag for months and undergo court challenges. Efforts to reform the system stalled earlier this year.
This will be the first time since the current redistricting laws have been in place that Illinois has had a Democratic governor and Democratic majorities in both houses of the legislature. When Illinois redrew its map 10 years ago after losing a seat, Republican George Ryan was governor and the state Senate had a Republican majority.
Two Illinois congressmen, then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Bill Lipinski, came up with a plan that largely protected incumbents. But it left out Democratic Rep. David Phelps, whose district was combined with others.
"Illinois tends to protect incumbents to promote seniority and resources in Washington," DePaul University political science professor Wayne Steger said.
Brady said he doesn't see any district being particularly safe this time, and he's confident that GOP candidates will remain competitive. The Republican party won 11 of the state's 19 House seats in the most recent election.
"No matter how they slice and dice it, we're going to have good candidates," Brady said.