Politicians will have to draw the lines somewhere—though it will be residents who experience the effects of new district boundaries. Federally mandated plans to re-map legislative district lines are underway with broad consequences for voters in the city and state.
Redistricting, the process of drawing U.S. district lines to equalize populations based on changes in census data, occurs every 10 years and has a unique process in the state of Illinois, but a move is afoot to change it.
The Redistricting Transparency and Public Participation Act is currently making its way to the state House of Representatives. According to its sponsor Sen. Kwame Raoul, it aims to protect minority voting rights and create greater transparency in the redistricting process. Additionally, the Senate-approved bill, which has until Jan. 11 to gain the House’s approval, would mandate four public hearings held throughout the state to better inform the process.
Because redistricting is a largely political, partisan process, “gerrymandering”—the drawing of borders for political gain—often makes the process highly politically charged in states such as Illinois where the legislature is in charge of map drawing.
“The nature of what types of policies your state is going to have for the next 10 years is dictated by that map in many ways because it will tend to set what the majorities are,” said Rep. Mike Fortner, a redistricting expert and former mayor of West Chicago.
According to Fortner, politicians often draw the maps in a way that favor their political party, making the drawing of the map a very powerful tool. In the last three decades the map strongly reflected the party that had the power to draw it.
After census data is released in January, negotiations will begin to determine the fate of districts and therefore populations, in the city and state. Congressional redistricting, unlike legislative redistricting, has very little in the state constitution guaranteeing a specific legal process as long as federal law is met.
State legislators will have until June 2011 to draw a map, but if they are unable to come to consensus, a commission of four Democrats and four Republicans will be set up. According to Fortner, if that group cannot come to consensus, the creator of the map will simply be drawn out of a hat—which happened in the last three redistricting cycles.
However, unlike the last three cycles in 1981, 1991 and 2001, Democrats have single-party control regarding the legislature and the governor’s office—making a random drawing unlikely.
Gerrymandering by the majority, and sometimes minority, party has a long history in the U.S. According to Fortner, there’s no reason to expect this year will be any different.
Though attempts were made to fundamentally change the redistricting process in Illinois, such as Senator Raoul’s Senate Amendment 121 and a citizen-led initiative proposed by the League of Women Voters, no such proposal has yet garnered the votes necessary to pass.
According to Whitney Woodward, policy associate at the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a big reason for this is a lack of public awareness.
“There’s meaning behind how districts are drawn, it’s just not always apparent to the public why they’re drawn that way,” Woodward said. “With the opportunity to involve the public we think there’s going to be more interest from residents in overseeing and watchdogging these processes.”
Redistricting affects residents on many levels of daily life, from school zoning and everyday neighborhood maintenance to the election of representatives and districting of their homes.
The districting of minority groups is commonly a contentious issue in the process, according to Fortner, because politicians have been known to “pack” and “fracture” those groups for political gain.
Chicago’s 4th district, represented by Rep. Luis Gutierrez and known as the “earmuff district,” is a clear example of this kind of gerrymandering, though according to Woodward, for good reason. The ICPR makes the case the 4th district, with its odd and far-reaching shape, was formed to comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and to give the substantial Latino population in the area the opportunity to elect the representative of their choice.
However, the negative impact of gerrymandering can be seen in areas like Chicago’s Chinatown, which is divided among four city wards and three congressional districts. Many residents of the area, including Woodward and Raoul, find this lessens the voice and vote of Chinatown residents and complicates matters of interaction with the local government.
Raoul’s current legislation will aim to protect areas from this sort of fracturing and preserve the voting rights in other minority areas of the state as redistricting comes into full swing early next year.
Despite the typical under-the-radar nature of the map-drawing process, Woodward and Fortner see the coming cycle as an unprecedented opportunity for residents to become involved.
“Ten years ago people didn’t really have access to this type of information—there wasn’t a meaningful way for them to get involved in the process,” Woodward said. “This decade that could be a lot different. Through open-source software people could be drawing their own maps.”
In fact, resident map drawing has already begun as many websites now feature the various perspectives of citizen map drawers, providing a new opportunity to refine and expand the ways in which districts can be re-envisioned.
Many expectations and predictions have arisen regarding the forthcoming census report, such as the possible creation of a second Latino district in Chicago and the possible loss of one Illinois congressional seat. Though regardless of what’s to come, many advocates of redistricting reform see the addition of guidelines and transparency as good for the process.
“This map stands for 10 years—that’s long lasting,” Woodward said. “It’s important we get it right.”