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Illinois Delays End of Prison Gerrymandering By a Decade

A hard-fought reform will stop the state from distorting political power. But it won’t take effect for a long time.

The Illinois State Capitol Building in Springfield (By Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

A hard-fought reform will stop the state from distorting political power at the expense of communities that bear the brunt of incarceration. But it won’t take effect for a long time.

For years, State Representative La Shawn Ford, a Democrat who represents parts of Chicago and Cook County, sponsored a bill to end prison gerrymandering in Illinois, and for years it went nowhere. 

This practice consists of counting incarcerated people at their prison’s location rather than their last residence for the purpose of redistricting. It skews political representation away from Chicago and Cook County, where incarcerated people disproportionately come from, and toward the whiter downstate areas where all Illinois state prisons are located.

To make matters worse, people incarcerated over felonies cannot vote in Illinois, so their physical presence grows the clout of communities that they cannot influence. With prison gerrymandering, Ford says, “you’re counting bodies but you’re not giving them the care that they need.” Areas where prisons are located “don’t count [prisoners] when it comes to schools, hospitals, resources. They don’t count them as people. They only count them as numbers for the sake of using them for apportionment.” 

In January, the state legislature finally passed his bill as part of an omnibus package that contained many other changes to the criminal legal system such as ending cash bail and curtailing driver’s license suspensions. Governor J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, signed it this week, a major success for advocates who have long championed these reforms.

But a clause inserted into the law significantly delays implementation of the measure concerning prison gerrymandering. 

The bottom line is that the state’s district maps will not be fixed until 2031.

Ford’s original bill instructed the state to end prison gerrymandering and gather the information necessary to do so “immediately.” But the version passed via the omnibus this year won’t go into effect until 2025. That’s when it instructs the Board of Elections to work with the Department of Corrections to adjust how the state uses the federal Census Bureau’s data on incarcerated people.

So when Illinois lawmakers draw the maps that will be used throughout the 2020s later this year, they will still be counting people where they are incarcerated, often hundreds of miles from home. 

Advocates are now frustrated that prison gerrymandering will distort the state’s political districts for yet another decade. And they’re hoping that state officials still return to the issue in the coming months to fix it.

“If there is a consensus that this is an unjust way of counting population, and that counting population really matters for our government functions and the services that residents receive in the community, then it matters in 2021, and it matters for the next 10 years,” Louisa Manske,  the policy and communications director at Chicago-based Workers Center For Racial Justice, told The Appeal: Political Report. 

Another limitation of the new reform is that—even once it is implemented—it will only change how the state legislature’s districts are drawn. It does not mandate an end to prison gerrymandering for congressional districts, nor for local districts such as for city council. That said, prison gerrymandering distorts state maps to a far greater extent than federal maps, since the number of incarcerated people is a much smaller share of congressional districts’ population.

Ryan Tolley, the policy director at Change Illinois, an organization that advocates for fairer elections, says he is “disappointed” by the provision that makes the measure effective in 2025. 

However, Tolley, as well as Manske, credited the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus members for ensuring that the No Representation Without Population Act would be included in the omnibus package, at least enshrining the principle that the state should move away from prison gerrymandering. 

And he, too, criticized lawmakers from districts with prisons for being indifferent to the conditions in the facilities, even though incarceration amplifies their power, in Illinois as elsewhere. “There are no elected officials downstate holding town halls or reaching out to the prison population, asking what resources do you need when you’re released so we can break the cycle of recidivism,” Tolley said. 

State Representative Justin Slaughter and State Senator Elgie Sims, members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus who shepherded the omnibus package, did not reply to requests for comment on what considerations or negotiations led the prison gerrymandering measure to be delayed and whether they think it is feasible to change the rules this year.

To end prison gerrymandering, states have to first adjust the data prepared by the Census Bureau, which counts incarcerated people where they are imprisoned. (The bureau rejected calls to change this practice at the federal level.) They have to subtract people from the counts of the places where they were detained and add them to the counts of the places they resided beforehand.

Although this process is not immediate, the bill was sitting in the legislature for years during which the relevant agencies—in the version that passed, mostly the Illinois Department of Corrections and the state Board of Elections—could have done this work. 

Manske and Tolley both believe that the requisite data could have been assembled in time for the upcoming round of redistricting even if the process had only begun in early 2021.

This “would have been a tight timeline,” Tolley said, “but I think we could have gotten it together in time for a remap.”

Manske even vowed to continue pressing for state politicians to revisit the issue in coming months.

“The Illinois Department of Corrections does extremely well in the resource department,” she said. “We flood it with money, and we should be able to have a clear picture of who is incarcerated and what their districts are.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections said the agency has much of the information the law asks it to share starting in 2025. “IDOC already collects self-reported data on the addresses of those who are incarcerated,” Lindsey Hess, the agency’s public information officer, said in an email. “Any additional time would be used to address any inaccuracies or changes to the data.” Hess said the agency took no position on the bill during the legislative debates.

A spokesperson for the Board of Elections also said that his agency “didn’t have discussions about the effective date” of the reform with lawmakers, though he was more circumspect when asked about his agency’s position on the timeline of implementation. 

“The systems are not in place at this time and the later effective date will ensure that the State Board of Elections produces the correct data as required by law,” Matt Dietrich, the board’s spokesperson, said via email. “When completing redistricting data, time is essential for the production of good data. Additional time has the added benefit of putting processes in place to ensure the data sets are correct and verified for accuracy.”

Aleks Kajstura, the legal director of the Prison Policy Initiative and a national expert on prison gerrymandering, agrees with state advocates that there is still time for Illinois to prepare its data in time to fix the issue this cycle—but only if there is “political will.” 

But political will on this issue is what was largely absent from Springfield in the first place, as Ford’s bill languished in the legislature for years. 

In five other states governed by Democrats, lawmakers rushed over the past 20 months to adopt laws against prison gerrymandering in time for drawing the legislative maps that will be used for the next decade.

Those states—Colorado, New Jersey, Nevada, Virginia, and Washington—have passed such reforms since May 2019. Until that date, only California, Delaware, Maryland, and New York  had done so, years earlier.

Still, that means that 40 states other than Illinois will also use prison gerrymandering when drawing their maps this year. This includes other Democrat-run states, such as Connecticut and Oregon, where lawmakers from prison districts have fought proposed changes in recent years.

Keisha Morris Desir, the Census and Mass Incarceration project manager at Common Cause, a national organization that advocates for voting rights and other issues, says this connection is crucial, and she still has hope that some other states including Massachusetts and New Mexico may change their rules in coming months. 

And in Illinois, Manske points to a need for broader reforms. The new law specifies that the adjusted population counts will not be used to determine how state and federal funding is distributed, a provision that Manske wants to see removed. The unequal geography of mass incarceration, Manske said, “dilutes funding and representation in majority Black districts that are disproportionately impacted by mass incarceration,” while “inflating democratic representation unjustly in prison districts, and creating financial incentives in prison districts to maintain those systems.”

Another issue is that Illinois compounds prison gerrymandering by preventing people who are incarcerated for a felony from voting, unlike in Washington, D.C., Maine, and Vermont.

“Perhaps we would be further along in transforming the criminal legal system if people were held more accountable to those that are behind the walls,” U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts told The Appeal in 2019.

The juxtaposition of felony disenfranchisement and prison gerrymandering in Illinois doubly ruins this promise of accountability. It gives the people living in areas around prisons more representation, and it altogether denies a ballot to the tens of thousands of people who are detained in them and are disproportionately Black and Latinx.

Ford, the state representative who sponsored the bill against prison gerrymandering, told The Political Report that he also supports extending voting rights to all incarcerated people. “One person, one vote,” he said, invoking a legal rule that bars gerrymandering practices that would create districts of unequal population to make the case for ending felony disenfranchisement as well.

Jay Young, executive director of Common Cause Illinois, agrees that enabling people to vote from prison is essential to addressing the underlying issues that fuel mass incarceration. “To respond to the issues that brought somebody to [prison] in the first place, participating at the ballot box … is an excellent place to start,” he said.