A group of aldermen, a mapmaker and a lawyer walk into a bar (it’s not actually a bar, just a conference room in City Hall). What happens next?
The decades-long punchline: We have no idea.
This is the time of year when elected officials convene to craft the ward boundaries that will shape Chicago communities for the next 10 years. But the process is done privately, behind closed doors in a so-called “map room,” and it may be months before Chicagoans get a peek at what aldermen have made.
This year, as with every decade, there’s a lot to consider. Chicago’s Latino population is officially the largest minority in the city, making up nearly a third of the population, but only 13 wards (or 26%) are majority-Latino. The city’s Black population has shrunk, but Black aldermen are vowing to hold on to their 18 majority-Black wards. And Asian Americans still don’t have a single majority-Asian ward, or sitting alderman.
Those are some of the major issues at hand. But how, when and where will this all shake out? And what can everyday people do to get involved? We spoke to aldermen, community organizers and census experts to get an idea.
Aldermen have until Dec. 1 this year to agree on a map that meets legal obligations and avoids lawsuits. The process is led by the Council’s Committee on Committees and Rules, which is headed by 8th Ward Ald. Michelle Harris.
The top-level goal? To use new census data to reshape 50 wards that, more or less, are home to about the same number of people.
“Every 10 years, we learn from the census what the population of different places is. … We learn that people have moved, people have been born, people have died,” said Jim Lewis, a senior researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago Great Cities Institute. “And so what was the same size 10 years ago is no longer the same size today.”
With the math behind them (Chicago’s 2,746,388 residents divided by 50 means about 55,000 people per ward), aldermen will also focus on making a map that’s airtight against voting discrimination lawsuits.
“There’s no law that says they have to be racially balanced — that only comes into play if you don’t do it, and somebody sues you,” Lewis said.
In court, a judge would determine whether there are enough members of the minority in a particular place that they could elect a representative to City Council, whether there’s a history of the racial or ethnic group being denied representation in the political process and more.
Aldermen will also try at all costs to avoid a referendum, where multiple map drafts could go to Chicago voters to decide. In order to do so, aldermen aspire to get 41 out of 50 ‘yes’ votes, since it takes 10 aldermen to drive an alternative map forward and force a referendum.
The wonky shapes
There are multiple reasons the lines get drawn the way they do. Lewis points to three of them.
One: to ease access to government services by keeping communities with similar interests intact.
But some communities say Chicago’s existing map fails them in this respect. Take the Asian community clustered in and around Chinatown, for instance. With the way the map is drawn now, advocates say, the community has to lobby multiple aldermen when in need of resources — a major reason Asian American activists are pushing for a majority-Asian ward this year.
Two: Lines — sometimes funky, obtuse lines — get drawn to ensure that representatives in the Council reflect the demographics of their city.
“Because of where people happen to live, it isn’t always easy,” Lewis said. “If you draw a checkerboard of the city, you wouldn’t get the racial ethnic representation that would represent the democratic proportions of different racial groups. And the reason is that in different parts of the city, different groups live in different concentrations. … You are going to have to draw some wards that are not squares or circles.”
And three: Lines get drawn to ensure politicians can get reelected, particularly in places where the party in power gets to draw their own maps.
“And there’s nothing in state or local law that says you can’t draw districts to favor particular incumbents or favor political parties,” Lewis said.
“Trading blocks” in the map room
The fact that aldermen are working toward an 82% majority vote to rule out a referendum has in the past meant no negotiation detail is too small to try to appease their colleague.
Former Ald. Richard Mell, who chaired the Rules Committee for decades and led the previous two remapping processes, compared the experience to jabbing needles in his eyes.
“I could remember, I think in 2000, one of the aldermen came in and said ‘You know I have to have this block in because the O’Learys want me to be their alderman,’” Mell laughed. “So we had to carve that block in for her. And that’s how it gets down to it. You get five or six aldermen and they start trading blocks to try to get a ward that they can get reelected at.”
When asked whether he was proud of the last remapping process he led — which created what he sees as the most ‘gerrymandered’ ward in the city (the 2nd, stretching narrowly from downtown Streeterville to Ukrainian Village on the West Side) — he said, “no.”
“Are you kidding me? Would you be proud of it? No,” he said, adding he worked 12-hour days and had the worst Thanksgiving of his life. “It was what had to be done to get the number of votes. You know, that was the goal.”
Aldermen who will be involved this year are gearing up for a similarly grueling process. Ald. Jason Ervin, 28th Ward, chairs the Black Caucus, which will fight to keep its power despite shrinking a population. He participated in the last remap, saying the process will make you “laugh, cry and sweat.”
But aldermen don’t have to go it alone. They head to the map room — equipped with mapping software, city staff, a demographer and cartographer, according to aldermen — at times in clusters with their neighboring colleagues. And the council’s Latino and African American caucuses receive city funding to hire an attorney and cartographer to help craft boundaries and retain or secure equal representation, given the history of voting discrimination against those groups, Ervin said.
Ervin, and members of Chicago’s Latino Caucus, say aldermen are in the very beginning stages of a months-long process.
“Our cartographers are working to kind of give us some ideas of what, based on population, what can be done,” Ervin said.
Freshman Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th Ward, said aldermen recently went to an orientation hosted by the Rules Committee to learn more about the mapping process. He said the only thing that makes him nervous about going through this process for the first time is the fact that aldermen have a slew of other big-ticket items on their agenda, including passing an annual budget and creating for the first time a civilian-led commission on police accountability.
“So when you’ve got three really big, important things happening with deadlines that are almost on the same date, then, you know, that’s concerning to me,” he said.
How to get involved
If aldermen are leading this process (laughing, crying and sweating included), it’d follow that perhaps the only way to get involved is to call your representative and tell them what you care about.
“They should make their voices heard, and reach out to their local elected officials, reach out to the press, and demand the type of map they would like to see,” said Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th Ward and chairman of the Democratic Socialist Caucus.
This year, a group of activists are urging residents to take the lead. The Chicago Advisory Redistricting Commission is holding public hearings, asking people to define their neighborhoods and even physically draw their own ward maps. The group includes 13 commissioners selected from 430 applications, intended to reflect the city’s diversity of neighborhoods, including race, age and other factors, said Commissioner Rory Gilchrist.
“I totally empathize with Chicagoans who feel a little bewildered by this process,” they said.
“Now, when it comes to everyday Chicagoans, there’s not more information, or more reading or more homework that they need to do. We as a commission are asking everyday Chicagoans to give their feedback, to give their testimony. And they don’t need to be anything other than what they already are, and what they already are are experts on their own communities.”
The commission plans to draw a map based on public input, and then attempt to secure the support of 10 aldermen to force a referendum allowing voters to decide. The commission has not yet started to try to sway aldermen to sign on, effectively convincing them to give up their power to craft the wards that elect them. But it plans to move full speed ahead once it has a draft map to provide.
So far, no City Council caucus leader has come out in support of the civilian-led commission, and several have expressed concerns.
“I think one could claim that the people that were elected, you know, are better democratic representatives of the city of Chicago when it comes to drafting maps,” Ramirez-Rosa said.
While Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot campaigned on the promise of creating an independent commission to draw maps, she has been relatively silent on the issue as the traditional process continues to forge ahead.
Correction: This story previously misstated how many applications the independent Chicago Advisory Redistricting Commission received. The group selected 13 commissioners from 430 applications.
Mariah Woelfel covers city government for WBEZ. You can follow her at @MariahWoelfel.