Change Illinois kicks off campaign to create independent commission to redraw Chicago’s ward boundaries

Any map that receives at least 10 City Council votes triggers a referendum that would allow Chicago voters to choose between rival maps.

SHARE Change Illinois kicks off campaign to create independent commission to redraw Chicago’s ward boundaries
Mayor Lori Lightfoot delivers the 2021 budget address during a virtual Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, Wednesday morning, Oct. 21, 2020.

Choose Illinois’ campaign to take the power to redraw Chicago’s ward boundaries out of the City Council’s hands includes some of Chicago’s best-known civic groups.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Some of Chicago’s best-known civic groups kicked off a campaign Tuesday aimed at creating an independent commission to redraw Chicago’s ward boundaries and make a clean break from the City Council’s history of “gerrymandering to protect incumbents.”

By choosing, training and bankrolling a 13-member “people’s commission” with its own “re-districting expert,” Change Illinois and its powerful civic partners hope to create a version of a Chicago ward map capable of attracting the votes of at least 10 aldermen.

Any map that receives at least 10 City Council votes automatically triggers a referendum that would allow Chicago voters to choose between rival maps.

“It’s time to end ward gerrymandering that protects incumbents . . . The days of deals over backroom maps are done,” Madeleine Doubek, executive director of Change Illinois, told a virtual news conference.

“We’re going to make possible a ward map for Chicago created by Chicagoans . . . It’s time to give residents the power . . . We’re supporting a process to create a Chicago map that puts the people first.”

The campaign to take the power to redraw Chicago’s ward boundaries out of the City Council’s hands includes some of Chicago’s best-known civic groups: Rainbow PUSH, the League of Women Voters, the Metropolitan Planning Council, NAACP West Side Chapter, Common Cause Illinois and the Latino Policy Forum.

Together, they hope to choose a 13-member commission from among a pool of applicants who apply by April 9 at www.chicagoswards.org.

They will be chosen by five designated academics and experts, including former independent Ald. Dick Simpson (44th), who endorsed Mayor Lori Lightfoot and served on her transition team.

Commissioners will be trained in voting rights laws and independent mapping principles. They will work with Jowei Chen, whom Doubek called an “experienced mapper” and associate professor at the University of Michigan.

Those commissioners who ultimately see the process through to completion — after listening to community input in open hearings — will be eligible to receive a $5,000 stipend.

“We’ll ask the commissioners to host a series of hearings to collect input and advice and community of interest maps from people in every community. Then, the commission will go about creating a map we hope will win support from the City Council,” Doubek said.

Ten years ago, the City Council approved a new map without a vote to spare.

It included 13 Hispanic wards and two Hispanic “influence” wards to reward Hispanics for their 25,218-person population gain in the 2010 census. It also included 18 Black wards, down from 19, after a 181,453-person drop in Chicago’s Black population. A vote of 41-8 avoided a referendum.

Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to create an independent commission to draw new ward boundaries to coincide with the 2020 census. But she has taken no steps to honor that promise and faces stiff resistance if she attempts to do so.

In late January, a proposal by Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) for City Council hearings on an “equitable redistricting process” ran into a buzz saw of opposition from the chairman of the City Council’s Hispanic Caucus.

“We should be the ones in control of creating our future boundaries of our future Latino wards and dismiss the myth that an independent commission would truly represent our interests,” Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) said then.

“Ten years ago, knowing the history of what happened, we were played. Latinos, we were played. We ended up with less seats in the City Council than the ones we should have had. This time around, we cannot allow that to happen.”

Lightfoot responded by acknowledging aldermen “have a very specific role to play and they should.”

But she argued that the old process needs to change.

“This can’t be a backroom, closed-door deal that the public has no insight into because, whatever the product is, it is not gonna have legitimacy. And for those aldermen concerned about reelection, a good way to invite a challenge is to completely lock the public out of the process,” the mayor said.

Still, Lightfoot has her work cut out for her. Even the mayor’s new City Council floor leader, Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), has expressed support for keeping the power to redraw Chicago ward boundaries in the City Council’s hands.

“I believe that state law says that the aldermen have the right to draw a map that they agree on,” Harris told the Chicago Sun-Times last month.

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