Redistricting lead art
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

Could A Ward Map Drawn By Citizens, Instead Of Aldermen, Become A Reality In Chicago?

Aldermen currently draw the ward map — resulting in weird shapes critics say empower politicians, not the people. One group is trying to change that.

Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ
Redistricting lead art
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

Could A Ward Map Drawn By Citizens, Instead Of Aldermen, Become A Reality In Chicago?

Aldermen currently draw the ward map — resulting in weird shapes critics say empower politicians, not the people. One group is trying to change that.

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This story is part of the Re-Imagine Chicago project, a collaboration between the University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government and WBEZ’s Reset, investigating how city government, community investment, public safety and schools could work better.

Sitting in the top right corner of a Zoom screen, her small square box highlighted in green, Madeleine Doubek, executive director of CHANGE Illinois, looked down at the camera.

“Today … we are inviting Chicagoans to rise up and join in this effort and reshape their city in this critical redistricting year,” she said as members of several grassroots Chicago organizations blinked into their cameras. “We’re going to make possible a ward map for Chicago created by Chicagoans.”

The March 9 announcement launched a new effort by CHANGE Illinois, a nonprofit focusing on fair and effective elections, to create an alternate Chicago ward map. The model is simple: 13 Chicagoans — independent of political affiliations and representing the geographic, racial and socioeconomic diversity of the city — will draw the map.

But while Doubek and her colleagues see big changes on the horizon, persuading Chicago residents to care about the contours of their neighborhood ward is a tall order. The city, after all, is in the throes of a surge in shootings and homicides and still grappling with both the ripple effects of the coronavirus pandemic and emerging, dangerous variants.

And while re-imagining the city’s ward map may seem both esoteric and divorced from such pressing issues, those at CHANGE Illinois believe creating a map is one of the most direct and effective ways Chicagoans can engage with their city government.

Why boundary lines matter

Every 10 years, a new set of U.S. Census data is released, and political party leaders redraw federal, state and city political districts across Illinois. Some districts gain residents; others lose them. Districts may also change demographically. And in most cases, the reshaping of districts is handled by the politicians whose reelections are directly impacted by where those boundaries fall.

On a local level, Chicago’s 50-part ward map is drawn by a group of City Council members behind closed doors — resulting in weirdly shaped areas that critics say entrench aldermanic power instead of representing the voice of the community.

This process breeds corruption, said Dick Simpson, a former alderman and a political science professor at University of Illinois-Chicago.

“[The wards are] always drawn for political purposes, either to protect particular incumbents or to protect particular racial dominance,” said Simpson, who served as an expert witness in two federal court cases filed in response to severely gerrymandered city districts.

Graphic showing Englewood and ward map
Six different wards intersect the community area of Englewood. Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

Take Englewood, for example. The majority Black community currently has parts of six wards running through it, resulting in confusion about which alderman represents which residents — and who to go to when you need a local problem solved.

Or look at the 14th Ward, where four voting precincts at the edge of a long finger-like shape overwhelmingly supported white mayoral candidates and 70% voted for Ald. Ed Burke in an otherwise majority-Latino ward, reported the Chicago Tribune. Those votes secured him enough to win his 13th consecutive term. That’s what Simpson is talking about, and it’s precisely the kind of practice CHANGE Illinois hopes to disrupt.

The people’s map

The idea of an independent, citizen-led redistricting commission has slowly gained traction across the country over the past decade. Several studies have shown that commission-drawn plans set the stage for “fairer and more competitive” elections.

But the success of such ventures relies on how well the process is designed. An article by Pew Research Center found that, despite best intentions, politicians on both sides of the aisle often fought over the commissions’ membership and the resulting maps — although it was less clear if that infighting led to more partisan maps overall.

The most successful citizen commissions had several key attributes: thorough candidate vetting, strong transparency requirements, adequate funding and timeframe, and a process for drawing the map that incentivized negotiation and compromise. That’s according to a 2018 study by The Brennan Center For Justice that evaluated redistricting commissions in seven states and three cities.

Graphic Steps To A Citizen-Drawn Map
Penny Hawthorne / WBEZ

CHANGE Illinois has followed many of those guidelines. The organization spent more than $20,000 on advertising its call for applications. The application itself was translated into the eight most prevalent languages in Chicago. More than 400 people applied. Change Illinois selected 13 for commissioner positions, a number they felt was large enough to ensure adequate diversity, while keeping an odd number as a tiebreaker.

Sorting through the massive pool took three months. Announced in early June, the members include a Near North Side resident who works for the Metropolitan Planning Council; a community organizer from South Deering; and Woodlawn resident Allen Linton II, the director of diversity and inclusion initiatives at the Associated Colleges of the Midwest.

“One of the things that we decided very early on was that we want to start with a blank map,” Linton said. “So, instead of asking, ‘What ward do you currently live in?’ or ‘How would you draw that ward?’ we say, ‘Tell us about your community. What are the challenges? What are the shared cultural experiences that are going on?’ That puts the focus on shared spaces and interests, and I think that is a fundamentally different place to build from in this process.”

Now that the commission has been created, its members must now be trained to read and organize census data in order to redraw boundaries in line with the mission of fair representation. According to state law, Chicago’s map must have 50 wards that each include roughly 55,000 residents and are geographically contiguous and compact

From June through October, the commissioners are hosting a series of public hearings where Chicago residents can say where they think the boundaries should be. Chaundra Van Dyk, who is leading CHANGE Illinois’s redistricting, puts it this way: “This is a people-driven process, and ultimately it will be a map for, and by, them.”

The California model

But accomplishing a “people-driven process” requires educating residents about ward maps and persuading them to care, too.

No one knows how challenging that is better than Kathay Feng, who worked for seven years to pass redistricting reform in California. The state’s success has been held up as a national model. But it didn’t come easily.

Starting in 2001, Feng, who is an anti-discrimination lawyer, tried negotiating with state legislators to adopt redistricting reform. Time and time again those talks fell apart.

“We felt like Charlie Brown with the football getting yanked away by Lucy,” Feng said. “We had hearing after hearing, but they couldn’t get a vote off the floor.”

Feng realized that a ballot initiative was the only path forward to introduce redistricting reform in California. Feng, along with a group of colleagues, wrote the language for Proposition 11, which introduced sweeping reform across the state. It took several years to gather enough signatures, but in 2008, the proposition was introduced on the ballot. “It was a presidential year, so there was an enormous turnout,” Feng said, “and a lot of people felt like they didn’t need to accept the status quo. They voted on principle.”

Not only did voters support the proposition, but in 2010 they voted to give an independent commission the ability to redraw both state and congressional lines. After 30,000 people applied to be commissioners, Feng and her colleagues settled on a bipartisan group of 14 who spent the next year holding public hearings across the state.

In the end, “the commissioners created districts where more than a dozen incumbents at the congressional level were replaced,” Feng said. “Not because they were intentionally [trying to replace politicians], but because they were responding to testimony.”

California senatorial districts changed dramatically after independent citizens redrew the map, a process that started in 2010. Katherine Nagasawa/WBEZ

Hurdles to adoption 

Unlike in California, Chicago’s citizen commission will draw the ward map first and try to get it voted into law later. CHANGE Illinois’s goal is to have their ward map completed by Oct. 1, to give them time to gain community and aldermanic support.

The City Council will hold a vote by Dec. 1 on which map they want to approve — the people’s map or the one drawn by aldermen. But persuading the City Council to adopt the map as its own would require a majority vote, which won’t be easy, Simpson said.

“Incumbents are not necessarily going to like a map if it doesn’t make their reelection easy,” Simpson said. “And even if they feel the map compact, contiguous and that it represents community, [aldermen] still may well oppose it.”

However, if at least 10 council members vote for the citizen-drawn map, the results would trigger a referendum vote at the next municipal or general election. At that time, Chicagoans would be able to vote for either the independent map or one created by City Council.

So who might support a new independent ward map? Perhaps, Simpson said, aldermen who are interested in seeing the system change. “The progressive caucus has 10 aldermen alone.”

Black aldermen might also back such a map, particularly if they are worried the map drawn by City Council will not favor their concerns. “The Black caucus is interested in keeping the same number of African-American seats, which will be difficult because the city has lost close to 250,000 African Americans since the last remapping,” Simpson said.

There are also aldermen whose wards and communities have been disenfranchised by gerrymandering. “We really want to recognize that this is a city that is historically and currently segregated,” said Linton, one of the redistricting commissioners, who points to places like Englewood.

“Chicago is a place that has had a difficult time of sharing power in an equitable, fair and equal way,” he said. “We hope that the map that comes out of this process enables all communities, and particularly communities of color, to be able to select leaders that best represent them.”

Whichever method, this process should be implemented across the country, Feng said. Cities and states, after all, don’t stand still. People move and populations shift. And that should be reflected in political districts, including Chicago’s 50 wards.

“Ultimately, we want to show that this is the blueprint where people can engage in this process and still get good maps,” Van Dyk said of Change Illinois’s effort. “People can have a voice in who represents them, and it can still work out right.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Allen Linton II’s first name, as well as the deadline for the City Council and referendum votes on the redistricting maps.

Elly Fishman is a freelance writer. Her book “Refugee High: Coming of Age in America” comes out Aug. 10. You can follow her at @elly33.

Mary Hall is the digital editor of the Re-Imagine Chicago project and contributed to and produced this story for digital. Follow her @hall_marye.