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Good Government/Reform Tue May 24 2011

Redistricting Circus is Back in Town

By Dick Simpson

Now that we have the mayor inaugurated and our federal and state income taxes paid, we can turn our attention to the political circus of figuring out which elected officials represent us. Legislative redistricting occurs in three rings and it is hard to keep your eye on all three at once.

The three redistricting arenas are congressional districts, state legislative districts and Chicago's aldermanic wards. Theoretically, four legal principles apply:

  • Districts must be equal in size.
  • Protected minorities cannot be gerrymandered to prevent them from electing members of their own race.
  • Districts should be contiguous.
  • Districts should be compact.

But redistricting is governed even more strongly by two political principles: incumbent protection and partisan advantage.

Congressional redistricting happens by the congressional delegation secretly drawing the district map in a way most likely to get them reelected. When they are done, they send their map to the state legislative leaders who get it accepted with little fuss.

There are problems with that simple political process this year. Illinois is dropping in population -- its congressmen are being cut from 19 to 18. One congressman is going to lose his or her job. Moreover, Illinois is a partisan battleground for control of Congress. Since the 2010 election, there have been 11 Republicans and eight Democrats, while after the 2008 election Democrats controlled the delegation by 10-9. The political battleground is the suburbs, where the Democrats recently lost three seats. The suburbs are an area of population growth so the boundaries there can easily be drawn to include or to exclude Democratic strength.

The 4th Congressional District held by Illinois' lone Latino Congressman, Luis Gutierrez, was legally gerrymandered to allow his election. It could be split into two districts with heavy Latino population on the Northwest and Southwest sides of Chicago reaching into the suburbs, but then Latinos might lose both seats.

In the second redistricting ring, we have the state redistricting. There have already been "show hearings." But every seated legislator wants to protect their current district more or less as currently drawn. For political parties, redistricting is serious business. No compromise between them is possible, as witnessed in the last three political redistrictings.

The new map must be approved by the legislature by June 30. Because of their control of the legislature, the Democrats currently have control of the process. But if they fail to act, the winning map will be decided by a legal coin toss after a deadlocked commission also fails to compromise.

But for Chicagoans there is the critical third ring of the circus. Because of local elections this year, the Chicago city council is already behind schedule. By April 2001, contracts with attorneys had already been let and by June that year the council had passed an ordinance establishing the redistricting process. This year, the process has yet to begin.

The city council needn't worry about partisan advantage. There are no Republican aldermen left. Here, redistricting is all about incumbency and race. Last time, blacks kept the majority in 20 wards and Latinos lost out. By their population size this time, blacks deserve only 17 or 18 wards, while Latinos deserve to go from nine (technically 11 counting the wards of Ald. Edward Burke and Ald. Richard Mell) up to at least 14. So blacks need to give up two wards and whites give up two or more for Latinos to get their fair share. It means that two black and two or more white aldermen must give up ethnic majorities in their districts.

The council has until December to complete the process. Expect a busy summer in the circus at city hall. Every decade since the 1960s, except for the last remapping, has ended in major lawsuits lasting five or ten years that successfully contested racial gerrymandering of the wards. In the case in the 1980s, the court-mandated remap changed the balance of power at city hall and, effectively, ended the "council wars" that marred Mayor Harold Washington's term in office. Because of the racial politics involved, look for lots of acrobatics making those squiggly map lines protect incumbents while meeting legal mandates.

This editorial first appeared at the Chicago Journal.

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