Are Chicago ward remaps impossible to figure out?

January 9, 2012

Last week, we here at WBEZ attempted to add clarity to the ward redistricting process (or #ReMap for you Twitterati).

We were fortunate enough to obtain map data files from each of the caucuses, which allowed us to make our own Google Map versions of the ward maps.

The debate over redistricting is a quintessential Chicago political story, one that involves race, ethnicity, clout and, ultimately, who has access to power.  In this case, there are maps from multiple sources, including those proposed by the City Council's Black and Latino caucuses, as well as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and the Pro Bono Thinking Society.  Each has filed an ordinance with the City Clerk.

The most confusing part of this saga for the public, however, is trying to determine which map is best for the city and what any of them might actually mean for any given household. Why? It's nearly impossible to determine where your house falls in any of the versions released so far.

So we stepped in to try to fill the void.

But first a quick bit of background:  In order for a ward map to be officially considered, it must be first submitted as an ordinance to the City Clerk.  What that means is that the proposed map is actually not submitted as a map at all; it's submitted as a text document with page after page of street names, directional coordinates, block numbers, etc.  Imagine a Google Maps text directions printout - for all 50 ward boundaries in the city. 

Within hours of posting our versions of the proposed maps, we received a lot of responses. It was the first time many could determine the extent of the redistricting and what some would call gerrymandering.

We also received some emails and Tweets voicing specific concerns about one of our maps: the Black Caucus, also called the "Map for a Better Chicago".  This map currently has 32 alderman sponsoring it, which makes it the leading candidate to win approval, assuming the process doesn't end in a city council stalemate. Such a stalemate would trigger a public referendum, and possibly a court battle.

Anyway, our Web readers pointed out that many of the boundaries in our Google-created version of the map didn't mesh with the descriptions in the "Map for a Better Chicago" ordinance, the 79-page document signed and submitted by the aldermen. The reason: The map was modified in the rules committee, and no electronic version was yet available.

In attempting to build out a new map, we wanted to answer another question:

How hard is it for the average Chicagoan to figure out their ward based entirely on the ordinances available to the public? For reference, here are links to the proposed ordinances:

Sponsored by aldermen:

Independent submissions:

The documents read as if it they were printed on parchment, with language such as "thence northerly" and references to railroad right-of-ways, such as the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, not commonly used in modern mapping devices and websites. 

There are also coordinates that are not your of standard longitude, latitude variety. Descriptions identify points not visible by streets or barriers. These are deemed "Nonvisible Linear Legal/Statistical Boundaries" and are denoted with something known a TLID.

TLID is Census jargon for TigerLine ID, or shapes/coordinates that are used for census tracts. These are not run-of-the-mill maps, but rather, sophisticated mapping coordinates that are used by professional cartographers, urban planners and certain government agencies like, well, the U.S. Census Bureau.

Further, some of the language in the descriptions is so vague as to simply say "Alley".  Which alley?  And in other instances, descriptions refer to "Local Neighborhood Road, Rural Road, City Street" when "continue west on Archer Avenue" would have been much clearer and more helpful.

Wait, Wait . . . Gerrymander South!

Accuracy is paramount when mapping and redistricting, especially when race and population have to be taken into account.

But when we attempted to map the "Map For a Better Chicago," based entirely on the descriptions submitted we noticed a few things.  The descriptions, sans 'thence' and the adverb-ification of directions are akin to a car GPS, a TomTom that is geopolitically slicing and dicing neighborhoods.

The maps were generated with the aid of mapmaking software, according to one source. However, it doesn't always seem to get the job done correctly.  On the few wards I've been able to draw out manually, I found several directional errors, where instructions say to head north to a street, when the said street is in fact south of the last position.

One proposed ward description runs 5 pages.

Full disclosure: I haven't the resources to deep-dive into the other submitted map proposals, focusing squarely on the Black Caucus as it has the most aldermen sponsoring it, and the lack of updated electronic files to verify the descriptions faster.  

Here's a shortlist of errors from the Black Caucus Map after drawing out 11 wards thus far: 

12th Ward

  • Start Point: W. Cermak Rd. & S. Homan Ave. 
  • Direction: North
  • Given Destination:  26th Street

 

  • Start Point: Pershing Rd. & Kedzie Ave.
  • Direction: North
  • Given Destination: 42nd Street

 

  • Start Point: S. Archer Ave. & Damen Ave.
  • Direction: North
  • Given Destination:  W. 35th St.

24th Ward

  • Start Point: I-290 & S. Kedzie
  • Direction: North
  • Given Destination: W. Harrison St.

 

  • Start Point: S. California & Chicago Burlington and Quincy RR (1/2 block south of 19th street)
  • Direction: South
  • Given Destination:  W. 18th St.

14th Ward

  • Start Point: Pershing Rd. & Kedzie Ave.
  • Direction: North
  • Given Destination: 42nd St.

 

  • Start Point: S. Archer Ave. & S. Lockwood Ave.
  • Direction: South
  • Given Destination:  51st St.

47th Ward

  • Start Point: W. Addison St. & N. Western Ave.
  • Direction: North
  • Given Destination: W. Belmont Ave.

 

In short, it took 2 days just to manually draw out 11 wards, some more complex with others.  (Progress shown on the right.)  There are 50 wards, 5 map proposals, and mounds of census data to sort.

Is it easy? No.

Is it possible for anybody without a computer to figure this data out? No.

Is it possible for seasoned political reporters and community activists to easily sort this data without help, a lot of time, Google Earth/Maps and a lot of monitors? Not really.

Is it possible that, despite the many errors found on the descriptions, that aldermen signed it without double-checking the boundaries? Yes.

Is it likely that the maps are being redrawn in closed-door sessions, with a bigger emphasis on keeping incumbant aldermen and not on maintaining neighborhood integrity and race demographics?  That the proposed remaps are so complex that a team of cartographers are needed to figure out which alderman you need to voice your concern to? 

But it's not just accuracy that's a concern.  Transparency has also been hard to come by in this remap process.  

The only "visible" maps that the various groups released to the public contained no streets or neighborhood boundaries. The Pro Bono Thinking Society was the only group to have an electronic version available  to determine where voters wind up.  The group, however, has received little or no coverage in the media.

Without clear, visual representations of the proposed ward boundaries, however, voters are then left to decode near-Byzantine descriptions to attempt a general understanding of where their ward will be.

Whether intentional or not, one thing is clear: The process keeps the rest of us out of the loop and largely uninformed about the process of determining for whom, how and where we cast our ballots in the City of Chicago.