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Chicago City Council on the clock to pass new ward map by Dec. 1

Mike Kasper for decades was the election law expert for deposed Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. Now he’s guiding aldermen through the politically excruciating process of dividing the city’s 2.7 million residents into 50 wards, each with a target population of 54,923.

Chicago City Council, meeting on May 29, 2019.
Members of the Chicago City Council, shown at a meeting earlier this year, have less than three months to approve a new ward map based on results of the latest census.
Sun-Times file

Chicago aldermen were told Wednesday they have until Dec. 1 to approve a ward map that divides the city’s 2.7 million residents into 50 wards, each with a population of 54,923.

Delivering that message was attorney Mike Kasper, who served for decades as the election law expert for deposed Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

He’s now guiding the City Council’s Rules Committee through the politically excruciating process of dividing the city up based on the latest census numbers.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) represents a booming Near West Side ward which added 9,707 residents in the 2020 U.S. Census.

Burnett wanted to know how many residents he would have to relinquish to adjacent wards to get below a “legally defensible deviation” from that target population of 54,923.

Kasper said based on his reading of U.S. Supreme Court voting rights cases in predominantly southern states dating to the 1960’s, a “total deviation of 10% or less is presumptively valid.”

However, “that doesn’t mean that it’s OK. It doesn’t mean that it’s safe. It’s not a safe harbor that immunizes or protects the legality of the plan or prevents a lawsuit challenging it. It’s presumptively valid. But that presumption could be overcome by adequate proof,” Kasper added.

“On the other hand, a deviation band that exceeds 10% is presumptively invalid. But that, too, can be overcome. I’ve seen a case with a deviation as high as 16% that was upheld by the courts because there was a good explanation for it.”

In the 2020 census, Hispanics bypassed Blacks as Chicago’s majority minority. The Hispanic population increased by 5.2%, or 40,656 people, to 819,518.

Chicago’s African American population dropped by 9.74%, or 86,413 people — to 801,195.

The white population dropped by 226,578 people, or 18.68%, to 986,280.

Asian-Americans scored the largest gain — 30.86%, or 45,420 people, to stand at 192,586.

Those population shifts have fueled concern about rekindling political tensions between Blacks and Hispanics.

“What happens when you have situations where African Americans and Latinos are at risk of diluting the other for the sake of drawing a map?” Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) asked Kasper.

Both Blacks and Hispanics are protected groups under the Voting Rights Act, Kasper said.

“So there is a potential conflict in certain circumstances. Hopefully, not in this one,” Kasper said.

Lopez then asked what would happen if “Latino communities are being included in a map that is using them as fillers to help preserve African American wards. ... How do you resolve that conflict in terms of the Voting Rights Act? Or is that simply just going to be a matter of inter-personal exchanges at that point?”

Kasper punted.

“I think I should avoid commenting on hypothetical questions about what could or could not happen. There’s so many factors that go into what the legal ramifications are or any proposed plan,” he said.

Far South Side Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) said he is highly suspicious of the fact that 15 of the 27 Chicago wards that suffered the greatest drop in population are predominantly African-American.

In the 2010 census, “I had 1,900 units that were empty because we were going through the Plan for Transformation at Altgeld Gardens. It’s disturbing to see how those units can come back on line, and then I still have a great drop in population,” Beale said.

“I just can’t believe that certain communities have had that kind of drop in population. I just think the manpower was not put in the African-American community to go door-to-door. I would like to see the data that shows where resources were put and how people were counted.”

Beale asked Kasper if there had ever been a lawsuit against the Census Bureau to “maybe invoke a stay and have a re-count.”

Kasper said he was aware of several lawsuits against the census, but none that required “additional counting. … I don’t know if that’s ever happened.”