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What voters need to know about redistricting

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Updated: December 5, 2012 6:17AM

On Tuesday, you may face a slate of unfamiliar congressional and state legislative candidates. Even if you are politically savvy, the names on the ballot may be new to you.

For instance, if you live at 21st Place and Oak Park Avenue in Berwyn, your U.S. representative is Dan Lipinski; your state senator is Martin Sandoval, and your state representative is Lisa Hernandez, Democrats all. But on Tuesday, none of these people will be on your ballot, though they are all running for re-election. Instead, the Democrats on your ballot will be other incumbents running for re-election: U.S. Rep. Danny Davis; state Sen. Steven Landek, and state Rep. Michael Zalewski.

How can this be? One word: redistricting.

The year after every 10-year U.S. census, the Supreme Court requires every state to rearrange its congressional and state legislative boundaries so that each district in a given legislative chamber is equal in population. That is, the states must redistrict their legislatures.

But this is no simple exercise in head counting and geography. Since the boundaries of a district can mean political life or death for hundreds of officeholders and candidates across the state, redistricting is perhaps the most politically intense process of the decade. The process results in a completely new political map. It also results in voter confusion.

While those drawing the new maps typically use the current legislative maps as a starting point, they have no problem deviating from these boundaries as political factors — both party and personal — dictate.

In redistricting years when the two parties share power in state government, districts often are crafted to preserve the political careers of incumbents. But in 2011, Illinois Democrats controlled the entire legislative process, allowing them to take as much political advantage as they felt the courts would allow — just as Republicans would have done had they been in control.

So the Democrats packed as many Republican voters into as few districts as possible, while spreading out Democrats to maximize the number of districts in which they might gain a majority. This game is as old as the country, but that doesn’t make it any easier for voters who have to navigate the new political landscape.

What can you do to prepare yourself for the voting booth? First, visit the Illinois State Board of Elections website,, to find out which districts you live in this year. Use the search engine to find the names of the candidates running in those districts; you can even see who has contributed money to those candidates’ campaigns. Most importantly, you’ll know which candidates to pay attention to in media reports and political advertising.

With so many new candidates and reconfigured districts this year, a little extra effort is crucial to finding the information that can aid your decision-making on Tuesday.

As you watch political commercials, receive fliers in the mail and read about candidates in the newspaper, don’t be thrown off by unfamiliar names. There are no statewide races on the ballot this year, so take the time to get familiar with the candidates for these important offices.

If history is any guide, whoever wins the legislative seats in your area this year will be difficult to unseat until the next round of redistricting in 2022. Take this opportunity to hold these candidates accountable. It’s your best chance in a decade.

Christopher Z. Mooney is a faculty member at the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs and a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

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