Chicago, Cook County and Illinois to tackle the ‘very complicated project’ of redistricting this year
With the narrow passage of Chicago and Cook County’s pandemic budgets and the initial rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine behind them in 2020, officials this year are tasked with redrawing Chicago ward, Cook County district, Illinois General Assembly and congressional district maps.
Drawing new maps and redistricting across the country occurs every 10 years, following the decennial census count. The purpose of redrawing in its simplest form is to ensure equitable representation as the population of the state and cities waxes, wanes and shifts.
Chicago’s and Illinois’ remapping process has largely played out in conversations and negotiations behind closed doors by politicians. To combat what’s been referred to as “political horse trading,” groups of advocates and some elected officials have called for more community input in the remapping and redistricting process in order to create more “equitable” maps.
Last year, the Coalition for Honest and New Government Ethics (CHANGE) Illinois called for the community to be part of the redistricting process to ensure equity. The organization made a call in the fall for money in Chicago’s budget to be set aside for the public engagement process to set up meetings among residents and community leaders to provide input on new ward boundaries.
“This is a form of voter suppression when districts are drawn primarily for political advantage,” said Madeleine Doubek, executive director of CHANGE Illinois, in a recent interview with The Daily Line.
“It sets the foundation for our democracy and when that foundation is rigged from the start, it creates all kinds of intended consequences that hurt all of us.”
Remapping Chicago’s 50 wards
The city can launch into the process of drawing new ward boundaries after the data from the 2020 census is available. According to the 2020 Census website, results from the 2020 count will be sent to states “as close to April 1, 2021, as possible.”
“The big piece of the puzzle that will come first is census data,” said Jim Allen, spokesperson for the Chicago Board of Elections, adding that the information will provide “all kinds of demographic breakdowns.”
And a “big question” will be “the thoroughness and accuracy of the pandemic census,” Allen said, noting the 2020 count was different from previous years as it wasn’t possible for counters to canvas door-to-door encouraging people to participate to the same degree as in previous counts.
“There’s more uncertainty regarding the census data than ever before,” Allen said.
The remapping process is usually led by some combination of chairs of important City Council committees including the Committee on Committees and Rules, the Committee on Budget and Government Operations and the Committee on Finance. The mayor’s floor leader also usually plays a part. This year, those chairs and the floor leader include Ald. Michelle Harris (8), Ald. Pat Dowell (3), Ald. Scott Waguespack (32) and Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36), respectively.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot during her mayoral campaign had advocated for an independent citizen commission to draw the map. At the end of December, a statement from a spokesperson on the topic remained largely unchanged from Lightfoot’s statement in October.
"As the City moves forward with its redistricting process following the completion of the 2020 Census, Mayor Lightfoot remains deeply committed to ensuring Chicago's residents receive nothing less than full and fair representation in the redrawing of the City's 50 ward boundaries,” according to the statement.
“From end to end, there must be transparency and fulsome engagement with our residents,” the statement continued. “Mayor Lightfoot is committed to working with the Council to ensure that happens.”
Essentially, those tasked with redrawing boundaries for Chicago’s 50 wards begin with the total population count for the city and divide it by 50 to get the target population for each ward. In 2010, that number was about 53,500.
The actual redrawing of ward boundaries has historically been a jockeying of aldermen attempting to draw boundaries so each of the city’s 50 wards are equal in population size, contiguous and “compact” while also ensuring their ward is drawn in such a way that they can be re-elected.
But one could argue many of the wards have taken a shape that appears the opposite of compact.
“The 2nd Ward ended up being a string of pieces that didn’t fit with other parts of the puzzle,” Allen said.
“I don’t think anyone could objectively look at the shape of the 2nd Ward and call it compact. I don’t think it is, no one I know thinks it is,” said Ald. Brian Hopkins (2). “The only person who says it is is the federal judge who ruled on a court challenge to the ward map including the 2nd Ward, especially the 2nd Ward, 10 years ago when it was created.”
Hopkins added “the less it looks like a geometric shape you learn in kindergarten — a triangle, a square, a rectangle or an oval — the less likely it should be to earn that label of compact.”
Recently, there have been calls for the city to allow a third party to redraw the ward map — an attempt to leave politics out of the process and ensure the wards are drawn in the interest of communities and neighborhoods and not the re-election of incumbent aldermen.
According to Illinois code, the City Council “shall by ordinance redistrict the city on the basis of the national census of the preceding year” by Dec. 1 of the year after the census is taken. “All elections of aldermen shall be held from the existing wards until a redistricting is had as provided for in this article.”
So technically Chicago’s 50 wards should be remapped by Dec. 1, 2021, but the map, once approved, will not go into effect until the 2023 election.
The approved map is submitted to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners which develops new precincts based on the new ward boundaries. In the last remapping, this portion of the process “went into overtime” and was impossible to implement by the March 2012 primary election, according Allen.
In addition to redrawing the Chicago precincts, election judges have to be designated, and officials simultaneously have to figure out where splits occur for state representatives and senators. “It’s a very complicated project,” Allen said.
However, once a redistricting ordinance passes City Council, if another group of aldermen properly submit a substitute ordinance, the two proposals could go to voters in the form of a referendum question. A redistricting proposal could also go to voters if aldermen fail to pass such an ordinance.
Illinois and congressional timeline
When lawmakers return to Springfield to convene the 102nd General Assembly, they will be faced with tackling the once-a-decade process of redrawing the district boundaries for the state’s 18 Congressional, 59 state Senate and 118 state House seats.
Although there has been no formal website created by the state so far, the process will begin in the early part of the year, with lawmakers facing a time crunch that genuinely gives Republicans hope of holding significant sway despite Democrats’ control of both legislative chambers and the governor’s office.
The key deadline to watch is June 30. That’s when the General Assembly must approve its new maps or the redrawing process is handed over to an eight-person commission that is split evenly among Democrats and Republicans. If the commission can’t agree on a proposal, a name is drawn out of a replica of Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hat, giving Republicans and Democrats an equal chance at controlling the remapping process.
State lawmakers have a long history of missing the June 30 deadline, which is set by the state Constitution. They did so in 1971, 1981, 1991, after they failed to override then-Gov. Jim Edgar’s veto. The deadline was also missed in 2001.
In 2011, when Democrats unveiled their redistricting proposal near the end of the legislative session, it was quickly approved, with then-Gov. Pat Quinn signing it into law in June. At the time, Republicans blasted the redrawn map and the process used by Democrats, with the minority party unsuccessfully asking the Supreme Court to invoke the tie-breaking remapping process.
While it may seem unlikely that Democrats, who have supermajorities in the House and Senate, could fail to meet the June 30 deadline, there are several factors that could complicate the state’s timeline.
After the Trump administration attempted to not include immigrants in the census and shortened the deadline to conduct the count, there’s been reports that the Census Bureau might not be able to have provide its apportionment numbers for the president until after President-elect Joe Biden takes office. Typically, the president receives the data on Dec. 31 of the year the count was performed.
Although, according to NPR, Biden has not given any indications on whether he will look to redo the census, concerns about the accuracy of the shortened count could lead to delays in sending data to states.
Doubek said the Trump administration’s “tinkering” with the census has generated concern that “key communities” in Chicago and southern Illinois were undercounted, which can lead to voters’ voices and their representation being “diluted or erased.”
“We’re very much concerned that the end result is that we will have an inaccurate census count,” she said.
Having an accurate count is no minor issue – the state’s population data is directly tied to the federal funding it receives. In September, Gov. JB Pritzker said if Illinois is undercounted by just 1 percent, it could result in the state losing $195 million in federal funds.
Beyond federal funding, another major implication of an undercount is the number of Congressional seats Illinois will have. Last month, population data from the U.S. Census Bureau showed the state recorded its seventh straight year of population decline in 2020. Further, between 2010 and 2020, Census Bureau data found Illinois lost 253,000 residents.
As a result, the state is expected to lose at least one and possibly two of its 18 Congressional districts, which will make the redistricting process even more complicated.
To help ensure a smooth process, House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-Chicago) recently touted his previous work on redistricting as part of his bid to retain his leadership role.
Although much of the redistricting decisions will be made by lawmakers, Pritzker could also play a major role, including whether state lawmakers meet the June 30 deadline. While he was campaigning for office, Pritzker said the state should create an independent commission to draw legislative districts, adding that he would veto any “unfairly” drawn maps.
Doubek’s organization and other reform-minded groups have called for the state to adopt various changes to the redistricting process to involve citizens more. Although that approach has been taken in several other states, including Iowa, Michigan, Missouri and California, lawmakers in Illinois have not passed any comprehensive reforms, including a proposal touted by CHANGE Illinois last year.
Despite the lack of movement for reforms, Doubek said redistricting is a critically important mechanism that can affect issues that everyday citizens care about.
“If you don’t like something that you see happening – whether its police reform in the city of Chicago, or schools and how they’re being opened or not being opened or run or not run – in one way or another all of these things tie back to drawing of political maps,” she said.
“It’s to my way of thinking one of the foundational ways we need to fix things and improve them so that we’re all sure that our voices are being heard.”
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