As New Ward Maps Take Shape Behind Closed Doors, Debate Heats Up

With efforts well underway to craft new ward boundaries that could shape Chicago politics for the next decade, Chicagoans on Wednesday got a brief glimpse of the heated debate taking shape behind closed doors at City Hall.

Two months after alderpeople started streaming into the so-called map room at City Hall in order to use computers loaded with specialized mapmaking software, the debate bubbled up into public view at the first hearing to examine the results of the 2020 census.

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The people of Chicago are 31.4% white, 29.9% Latino, 28.7% Black and 6.9% Asian, according to the 2020 U.S. census. 

While Latinos saw their share of Chicago’s population rise 5% from 2010 to 2020, Chicago’s Black population dropped 10%, with the decline concentrated in neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West sides that are struggling with violence after decades of disinvestment. 

Fifteen of the 27 Chicago wards that lost population as measured by the census are home to a majority of Black Chicagoans.

During the past decade, Chicago’s Asian community grew by 31%, fueling calls for the new ward maps to create a ward with a population of Asian American residents centered around Chinatown and south of the Loop.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th Ward) said he was “really disturbed” by the drop in Chicago’s African American population, and suggested that it was due in part to an undercount exacerbated by a “strategic” decision to send fewer census takers and other resources to African American neighborhoods.

“I just can’t believe that certain communities had that kind of drop in population,” Beale said. “The manpower wasn’t put in the African American community to go door-to-door.”

The Latino Caucus has 13 members, and there are 13 wards where Latinos make up a majority of residents. Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th Ward) left the caucus in 2019.

At the same time, Ald. Jason Ervin (28th Ward), the chair of the 20-member Black Caucus, has vowed to maintain the 18 majority Black wards represented by Black alderpeople.

State law requires Chicago wards to be “nearly equal as practicable” while being as “contiguous” and “compact” as possible while complying with the Voting Rights Act, which ensures that Black, Latino and Asian Americans can exercise political power in keeping with their population.

Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th Ward) told attorney Michael Kasper that the new maps should focus on including whole neighborhoods — and avoid creating wards like the 2nd Ward, which is shaped like a lobster.

"Alderman Hopkins has the most ridiculous ward in the city,” Sposato said.

Community groups in Englewood have called on city officials to create one ward out of the South Side neighborhood, which is now represented by six alderpeople — making it impossible to craft solutions to problems that cross ward boundaries. 

Since Chicago’s population in 2020 was 2,746,388 residents, each ward should have 54,928 residents, according to Kasper, who was hired to advise 8th Ward Ald. Michelle Harris. The chair of the City Council’s Rules Committee and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s floor leader, Harris will lead the remapping effort.

Using the ward boundaries drawn in 2011, wards along the lakefront and along the city’s northern border now have too many people, while those on the South and West sides have too few people, Kasper told members of the Rules Committee on Wednesday.

Several aldermen pressed Kasper on just how few people each ward could have and still withstand a legal challenge. Wards that land within 10% of the target are presumed to comply with the law, Kasper said.

A draft of an alternative map was released by the 13-member Chicago Ward Advisory Redistricting Commission on Sept. 13. 

Created by a coalition of community groups lead by Change Illinois, the commission has promised to submit a final ward map “that strives to keep communities and neighborhoods whole and, as required by federal and state law, strives to empower racial, ethnic, and language minority communities with an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice."

If 10 alderpeople agree on an alternative map, it would force a referendum that would put the competing maps up to a vote, officials said. The deadline to trigger a special election on ward maps is Dec. 1.

The process underway to craft the boundaries for each of Chicago’s 50 wards is much the same as it was in 2011 — even after then-candidate Lightfoot vowed to empower an independent commission to craft the maps and put an end to handshake deals between political rivals.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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