The U.S. Census released new population estimates Thursday, arming Illinois Democrats with long-delayed demographic data needed to begin drawing new congressional boundaries in a process that could lead to fewer Republican U.S. House seats downstate.
The Democratic-led General Assembly is expected soon to return to Springfield to put the finishing touches on the decennial political redistricting process. New maps for the state legislature, the state Supreme Court and Cook County Board of Review were enacted in June.
But Democratic leaders wanted to hold off on drawing new congressional district boundaries until they received the federal population data released Thursday.
The data revealed Thursday showed statewide that Illinois’ 2020 population stood at 12,812,508, down by 18,124 people from a decade ago.
While that’s a statistically insignificant change, the state’s demographics during that period became less white and Black and more Hispanic/Latino, Asian and multiracial, the data showed.
Chicago, with its 2020 headcount at 2,746,388, saw its population rise slightly. In 2010, the city’s population was 2,695,598.
It’s unclear whether the data put out by the U.S. Commerce Department is a close match with the controversial population estimates Democrats used last spring to draw political boundaries for the state legislative and judicial branches of government.
Now that the new data is public, Illinois Democrats did not show their hand as far as next steps.
“As for the information being released today, we need time to receive and analyze the data,” said Jaclyn Driscoll, a spokeswoman for Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside. “I don’t have any further information or updates to provide at this time.”
Republicans contend they’ve never been shown the detailed demographic estimates that Democrats used. Those are now the subject of litigation the party brought earlier this summer in federal court, challenging the legislative and judicial maps.
How Democrats now go about carving up the state’s congressional boundaries is a high-stakes matter that could influence whether the party retains control of the U.S. House during mid-term elections next year.
Last spring, Dave Wasserman with the non-partisan Cook Political Report characterized Illinois’ Democratic-controlled congressional map-making process as the party’s “biggest redistricting weapon of the cycle” in terms of potentially helping Speaker Nancy Pelosi retain power.
Even though Illinois will lose one of its 18 congressional seats because of a no-growth decade, Wasserman has said Democrats conceivably could draw favorable maps that would make their current 13-to-5 advantage over Republicans in Illinois even more lopsided, perhaps stretching that margin to 14 to 3.
Those gains could help offset potentially new Republican seats in the Sun Belt and other GOP-friendly states that saw population gains this census cycle.
That analysis, however, came before U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos announced this would be her last term in Congress, putting that Democratic seat in northwestern Illinois clearly in play for Republicans and potentially clipping the prospects of a three-seat net gain in Illinois for Democrats.
The once-a-decade redistricting process in Springfield is one of the most intensely political spectacles to come before the state legislature and has potential to give the party in control of that process an edge for the next five election cycles, when new census data emerge.
Political map-making this year has dragged out because of the pandemic and because of a losing legal battle waged by former President Donald Trump to block the census from including undocumented immigrants. Census data that normally would have been turned over to the states in March for redistricting was delayed until now.
That left Illinois Democrats in a tight spot due to a state constitutional mandate that dictated legislative maps be completed by June 30. Going beyond that date would have triggered a process that could have enabled Republicans, despite their super-minority status in the legislature, to have a 50-50 shot at controlling the process.
So to avoid that, Democrats used population estimates from 2015 to 2019 contained in the American Community Survey, which the U.S. Census Bureau produces. But it’s regarded as less reliable than the final ccensus count released every ten years.
Republicans are now trying to argue in court that Illinois Democrats were wrong to use those estimates, though there is nothing in the state constitution or state law that explicitly bars its use. The case still has not been decided.
Dave McKinney covers Illinois state government and politics for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney.