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Column: Rep. Tim Ozinga’s concerns about lawmakers silenced in budget negotiations reveal pitfalls of gerrymandering

Originally Printed in the Daily Southtown

I applaud state Rep. Tim Ozinga of Mokena for criticizing the lopsided dynamic of Illinois politics in a newly released opinion piece.

Ozinga, who chairs the Will County Republican Central Committee, opined in an essay distributed Thursday that GOP lawmakers were shut out of the recent state budget-making process by Democrats who control the legislature.

The $50 billion budget was drafted behind closed doors and rammed through both chambers without adequate opportunity for debate, Ozinga wrote. Has nothing changed since the departure of former longtime House Speaker Michael Madigan?

“We were promised change following the end of the Madigan era and were told that new leadership in the House and Senate would secure the ethical changes we so desperately need,” Ozinga wrote. “This was, of course, yet another empty promise made to the taxpayers of Illinois who put their faith in us to act ethically.”

Ozinga is 100% correct. This is what happens when one party exerts total dominance over another. In Illinois, Democrats in charge of making the rules totally silenced their Republican colleagues, Ozinga wrote.

“Only hearing one side of the story or one view on an issue completely impedes the creation of innovative ideas by forcing our legislators into an echo chamber of similarly minded individuals spouting off identical partisan rhetoric,” Ozinga wrote.

I agree with Ozinga, Illinois Democrats occupy the Governor’s Mansion and every other elected statewide office, plus they hold supermajorities in both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly.

“Democracy requires balance in order to operate effectively,” Ozinga wrote. “Our state has lost any semblance of balance, which is probably why we are currently facing so many issues.”

Republicans who hold elected office in the Chicago area seem to be more scarce than White Sox fans at Wrigley Field. Ozinga and the handful of other Chicago area elected Republican officeholders are like lonely voices crying out in the wilderness. They are so outnumbered, no one seems to hear their messages, except maybe a few of their loyal supporters.

“From job loss, to record out-migration, to public safety and ethics reform, our state is in crisis,” Ozinga wrote. “Clearly, the ideas being set forth by the majority party are not working or we would actually see businesses growing and families staying in Illinois.”

Few Democratic or independent voters seem to listen when GOP officials complain about how bad things are in Illinois. The Republican political strategy is puzzling. By telling supporters how Illinois is so bad that people are leaving the state, party leaders seem to be encouraging more GOP voters to move to red states like Florida.

That’s not making it any easier for Republicans to win elections in Illinois. Democrats actually gained seats in the Illinois General Assembly during the most recent statewide elections.

“It’s time to end the harsh Republican and Democratic divide and remember that we are all Illinoisans, looking to make our state the best it can be,” Ozinga wrote. “Let’s focus on choosing solutions, not sides.”

Ozinga makes many good points. His essay offers a chance to reflect on how we got here. Democratic voters do not outnumber Republicans by a margin of more than two to one in Illinois. So how come Democrats hold state legislative supermajorities and 14 of the 17 seats in the congressional delegation?

The answer is gerrymandering, or the process of drawing legislative district maps after the census every 10 years. Democrats control mapmaking in Illinois and have engineered the process to maximum Democratic advantage.

In other states, Republicans control the process and have marginalized Democratic representation. It’s unfair, undemocratic and contributes to our extreme partisanship. It needs to be fixed at the federal level so the same rules apply evenly in all states.

Our partisan divide wasn’t always this bad. Politicians seem less concerned about brokering compromises to govern efficiently and more concerned about securing legislative majorities for the sake of exercising political power.

The current state of affairs can be directly traced to Barack Obama’s presidential win in 2008, author David Daley told journalist Bill Moyers. GOP strategists spent $30 million to win state legislative races in 2010 and weaponize gerrymandering.

“Elections ending in zero are just much more consequential. Because you can win back the power to draw all of these districts,” Daley said. “And so in 2012, Democrats win 1.4 million more votes for the U.S. House than Republicans. But Republicans hold onto the chamber, 234-201.”

Gerrymandering harms democracy by making elections less competitive. Candidates and parties are reluctant to invest time and money to run in districts where the map heavily favors one party over another.

Laws are supposed to protect citizens from excessive gerrymandering that disenfranchises voters because of race and other factors. But courts stacked with conservative justices have weakened such protections.

This dynamic has led to more extremism in both parties. The outcome of a general election is often a foregone conclusion because gerrymandering gives such a big advantage to one party over another. The real battle is most often in the primary.

Candidates often use incendiary rhetoric and stake out extreme positions in order to appeal to the base of voters who choose a party’s nominee in a primary. As a result, party platforms and legislative agendas have become more likely to reflect the views of extremists. Moderate views are boxed out.

In red states dominated by Republican majorities, lawmakers have passed measures that have resulted in book bans or prohibitions on medical care for people questioning their gender.

In blue states dominated by Democratic majorities, like Illinois, lawmakers have staked out extreme positions on issues like abortion by repealing such previously approved measures as a parental notification law.

Illinois Democrats have been particularly good at maximizing gerrymandering to their advantage. Their counterparts in New York and other states have been less effective. If Democrats in other states were as ruthless as Illinois partisan mapmakers, Democrats would likely hold a majority in the U.S. House at the moment.

The key takeaway is that Ozinga is correct to point out the disparities and harms created when one party leverages a slim electoral advantage to engineer a massively disproportionate representative majority.

Bipartisan majorities of congressional lawmakers should work together at the federal level to curb the most egregious incidents of gerrymandering. They ought to write rules that are fair, encourage voter participation and promote compromise.

Better rules on district mapmaking should apply equally in all states. Such changes would help restore balance to lopsided political dynamics in Illinois and other states.

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