This article is a collaboration between St. Louis Public Radio and the Belleville News-Democrat.
O’FALLON — When Charlie Cook looks out across South Lincoln Avenue through the front window of her downtown O’Fallon bakery, she’s looking into a different congressional district.
It’s a boundary line that splits the southwestern Illinois town practically in half.
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“It seems like cherry-picking as far as the representatives are choosing their demographics,” said Cook, 38, a lifelong O’Fallon resident who opened the Happy Bakery eight years ago. “I don’t really support the idea of our representation being split that way just because anyone from O’Fallon should be able to go to the same representatives and be heard.”
Before Cook was asked about the issue, she, like many others, didn’t know state Democrats had drawn a line through O’Fallon. Roughly a dozen people approached by reporters had no clue their city had been split down the middle for political purposes following the 2020 Census.
Gerrymandering, a party’s manipulation of district boundaries for political advantage, contributes to polarization in the United States, dividing neighbors, family and friends. Yet few seem to know or care that they’re being manipulated for political power.
All of O’Fallon currently sits in U.S. Rep. Mike Bost’s 12th Congressional District. The proposed map takes a chunk of Democratic-leaning O’Fallon voters and puts them in a newly drawn 13th Congressional District, in the hope it will be a safe bet for a Democratic candidate. Republican-leaning voters stay with Bost.
Jon Greenstreet, owner of the Bike Surgeon repair shop and an O’Fallon resident, said he didn’t know about redistricting either. And why should he care? There’s nothing he can do to change it, he said.
Gerrymandering is just a symptom, Greenstreet said. The disease is systemic corruption in congressional and state politics.
“I think things like term limits and anti-corruption measures would make a whole lot more sense than even thinking about the maps,” he said. “And (the map) seems to be a thing that is a foregone conclusion, which is unfortunate because the level of corruption that’s built into our system.”
Congress needs to address term limits and campaign finance to earn enough trust from voters before they even care about redistricting, Greenstreet said.
“It’s unfortunate, but it’s the reality of our current system. I think if we could focus our efforts on addressing those kinds of issues we’d see a lot more value as citizens than even having a discussion about the map.”
But until something changes, voters seem content with a system that allows politicians to choose their voters rather than voters picking their politicians.
Who cares about redistricting?
Redistricting occurs every 10 years based on population data from the latest census. Population matters because the U.S. Supreme Court established that every person’s vote should carry the same weight. So, the number of people in each of a state’s legislative and congressional districts has to be roughly the same. But that can lead to partisan abuses.
Illinois lost enough people between 2010 and 2020 that it also lost a congressional seat — going from 18 to 17. This gave state Democrats, who dominate redistricting, an opportunity to redraw the map and potentially shrink the number of Illinois Republicans in Congress.
It’s a process few voters follow.
Ely Gillespie has lived in O’Fallon since work at Scott Air Force Base brought her there with her husband in 1996. She said she votes regularly because she believes it’s important to be involved but was unaware of the new congressional map. Her home will fall into the new 13th.
“Oh my goodness,” said Gillespie, 72, when reporters told her about the new map dividing the city. “See, when you get old you get ignorant.”
She said she didn’t think redistricting would have much of an impact.
“It don’t make me feel different because it’s the same taxes.”
Republican U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis of Taylorville said most Illinoisans suffer from a lack of awareness. Democrats drew Davis into the new solidly Republican 15th District, where he wouldn’t pose a threat to any Democrats.
“Most people in central and southwestern Illinois don’t live and breathe politics and they don’t really know that redistricting is happening,” Davis said. “They don’t know they get a new member of Congress when they go to cast their vote or when they start to see stuff start to show up in the mailboxes.”
State lawmakers held hearings throughout the spring and early summer as they drew maps behind closed doors, but few people knew about the sessions or attended.
In April, at hybrid online and in-person hearing in East St. Louis, the sparse crowd of attendees at the Jackie Joyner Kersee Center gymnasium couldn’t hear what redistricting committee members said because they were speaking into headphones, not to people in the room. Even those who did attend, such as East St. Louis NAACP chapter President Stanley Franklin, say there weren’t listened to.
At hearing in East St. Louis, Franklin raised concerns about the potential for taking advantage of Black voters in East St. Louis. The NAACP chapter is now suing Democrats over a legislative map the chapter alleges did just that.
Many politicians are comfortable keeping the highly partisan exercise under the radar.
Apathy and lack of awareness allow politicians to use voters as pawns to empower themselves, said Jim Nowlan, a former Republican state legislator.
“This kind of mapping reduces trust in government. How are voters supposed to know who their reps are, where the offices are if one needs help from one’s elected official?” Nowlan said. “And maybe even worse, this kind of mapping increases the polarization that most thoughtful Americans worry is tearing the country apart.”
What effect does gerrymandering have on Illinois?
It’s hard to care about gerrymandering when it feels like rearranging furniture in a collapsing house. But packing voters of each party into their own districts can contribute to polarization in politics by making elections less competitive.
When voters of one party dominate a district, it means the winner in November is effectively chosen in the primary. For instance, in the 15th Congressional District, where Donald Trump won more than 70% of the vote in 2016 and 2020, Democratic congressional nominee Erika Weaver didn’t stand a chance against the GOP primary winner, Rep. Mary Miller.
Partisan gerrymandering also allows primary candidates from the dominant party to cater to their “base” — the most stalwart and sometimes extreme group of voters. The process can produce extreme general election candidates.
“So, a candidate for office has to move to the right or to the left,” Nowlan said, “and they care not at all about those of us in the middle who would like to find a situation with two decent candidates from whom we could make a choice.”
Miller, a far-right politician who cited Adolf Hitler at a speech on the U.S. Capitol steps in January, might decide to run against the relatively moderate Davis. The Constitution says representatives must live in their state but not necessarily the district they represent.
Their voting records aren’t drastically different. But unlike Miller, Davis early on said President Joe Biden won the 2020 election, and he voted to uphold the results. He often touts his record as one of the most bipartisan in Congress. Running against Miller might force him further to the right.
“The process is almost destructive of responsible moderate discussion as a result of the polarization from the redistricting that we have,” Nowlan said.
What does the new map look like?
Democrats added roughly 10,000 voting-age residents from the southwest quadrant of the city to the 13th, represented by Republican Davis, said Andrew Ellison, a political map analyst and a campaign staffer for Democrats.
There’s a higher percentage of Black voters in those precincts who historically vote Democratic, supporting Biden over Trump in 2020.
Democrats left roughly 22,000 voting-age residents, mostly white, in the 12th District, represented by Bost. More of them voted for Trump.
Splitting O’Fallon by party — and, by extension, race — allowed state mapmakers to create a 13th District that’s relatively safe for a Democratic candidate. The strategy also sinks Republican voters into the 12th, which state Democrats know will go to Bost.
It’s not just congressional districts. Illinois Democrats who drew legislative maps following the 2020 Census split O’Fallon into four state House of Representatives districts, up from three. Three state Senate districts touch O’Fallon, a number that will remain the same.
“It makes me feel like we don’t have really somebody who represents and understands the needs of our community when we’re so split,” said third-term Mayor Herb Roach.
How well will O’Fallon be represented?
If a Democrat from another part of the gerrymandered 13th is elected, how much will they really care about the voters in O’Fallon?
It’s a question people should be aware of, Ellison said, because the district stretches from East St. Louis to Champaign-Urbana, capturing Democratic-leaning urban voters along the way.
“It seems very likely that a Democratic member of Congress will be elected,” Ellison said. “Especially a member of Congress not from the metro east, how receptive might they be to the needs of O’Fallon with only 10,000 people in those districts?”
The mayor has the same concern about state legislators. When he saw the legislative map with seven lawmakers representing chunks of O’Fallon, he asked if they could “cut it down.” He was told no.
“When they’re so split and they have just a small segment of your community … trying to cover everybody, they don’t have an opportunity to really understand the needs of our community,” Roach said.
Bost said he would continue to represent the entire city even if it’s split.
“You’re not going to only represent part of the town,” said Bost, who announced his campaign for reelection in October. “I’m still going to continue to represent them even if they can’t vote for me.”
But it’s frustrating when voters “have to calculate what street their on” to figure out what their district is, Bost said.
“If a person calls me, I have to ask them who their member of Congress is before we start to help them so we’re not stepping on toes of an overlapping district,” Bost said.
Rep. Davis said representing dozens of counties poses logistical challenges.
“It comes down to willingness,” Davis said. “It’s the willingness of the representative to create a team that’s going to be able to provide the representation and the constituent service opportunities that our constituents deserve.”
For Mayor Roach, it’s not just about willingness. It’s about understanding. He’s skeptical a lawmaker unfamiliar with the metro east will be able to effectively represent O’Fallon.
“Our needs are probably a lot different than a Champaign or a Springfield or somebody like that,” Roach said. “To have somebody who truly understands and represents your population would be so very important to us.”
What can be done?
O’Fallon is just one example of a city split by redistricting.
Collinsville has long been cut almost in half. The NAACP of East St. Louis, Republicans and other groups charged that the state legislative map Pritzker approved unconstitutionally divided East St. Louis to empower certain incumbents.
Eight states use nonpolitical commissions to draft their maps. Two states have a hybrid model with both political and nonpolitical members, according to election data site Ballotpedia.
In most states, the legislature dominates redistricting. Just as in Democratically controlled Illinois, lawmakers in Republican-controlled states use redistricting to their advantage. Partisan gerrymandering is entirely legal thanks to a 2019 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said it’s a political matter and not one for the federal judiciary, unless lines are manipulated to dilute the influence of racial groups.
Short of overturning that decision, Illinois lawmakers would have to change how the state redistricts.
Michigan voters, for instance, revised their system in 2018. Instead of politicians drawing the maps, citizens draw lines that “represent their best interests and respect their historical, cultural or economic perspectives,” according to the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.
The 13 members of the commission were selected randomly from more than 9,000 applicants — four Democrats, five Independents and four Republicans. They’re required to hold at least 10 public hearings before drafting a map, then five more after they release a first draft.
To approve a map, at least two commissioners from each party must vote in favor. According to the rules, districts must not give an unfair advantage to any party.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker campaigned on revamping the state’s redistricting process, but as the COVID-19 pandemic dominated all state business, that promise dropped from his agenda.
But it doesn’t matter much to Gillespie, the 72-year-old O’Fallon resident. She walks from home to her church most days to volunteer and believes her community will continue to support each other despite a congressional split.
“It doesn’t bother me too much,” Gillespie said. “I just try to help wherever I can.”
Kelsey Landis covers Illinois state politics and affairs for the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio. Follow her work here: @KelseyLandis
Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.