Fairness of Redistricting Being Questioned by West Siders

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Some West Side Chicago residents fear this year’s redistricting cycle could leave their communities without needed representation and resources.

The fear isn’t new. But this year it comes amid a lack of transparency and public engagement, according to Valerie Leonard, a North Lawndale resident and the co-founder of the Lawndale Alliance, which addresses issues of concern through community organizing, advocacy and community outreach.

And as legislators gear up to redraw the state’s legislative boundaries to reflect population changes documented by the U.S. Census Bureau, Leonard and members of Illinois African Americans for Equitable Redistricting, a coalition of community leaders and stakeholders, have also raised concerns about how their districts will be redrawn.

Districts are redrawn every 10 years using population data provided by the Census Bureau. The goal of the process is to ensure each citizen is equally represented in government and can elect the candidates of their choice.

The data used to carry out this process are typically available by April 1. It informs how federal funds are allocated to communities across the nation, including in Chicago. About $700 billion is distributed to communities in the city in areas such as healthcare, housing, education and transportation, according to the Chicago Census 2020 website.

The data won’t be released until August or September due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bureau announced in February.

 This delay poses challenges to Illinois lawmakers aiming to redistrict by June 30 as required by the state constitution. If lawmakers don’t make this deadline, the state constitution says an eight-member legislative redistricting commission would be formed to develop a redistricting plan by August 10.

While it’s still uncertain what data lawmakers will use, the Illinois House and Senate Redistricting Committees have been holding public hearings to try to learn how residents think districts should be redrawn.

The House Redistricting Committee began public hearings in April while the Senate Redistricting Committee began them in March. Both committees are broken into subcommittees covering various parts of the state. Some of the subcommittees are for DuPage County, Northern Illinois, South Western Illinois, West Central Illinois, South Chicago and West Chicago.

Leonard said she hasn’t seen as many Black residents engaged in the public hearing process as she did during the last redistricting cycle in 2011.

“You have other groups that are multi-cultural, primarily Latino, Asian or Muslim that want to look out for everybody to make sure there are equitable maps drawn but what’s lacking is voices of Black people from Black communities,” said Leonard, who provided public testimony to the Senate Redistricting Committee on March 30.

“Even though I’m Black, I still can’t advocate for every Black person because we have different needs,” she added. “So it’s very important to get (as many) Black people from around the state to advocate for their own communities.”

Leonard attributes the turnout to a lack of education on redistricting issues and why they are important in addition to insufficient outreach to Black communities by the state legislature. Plus the hearings have been scheduled during normal business hours when many people are unlikely to participate, Leonard said.

Ryan Tolley, policy director for CHANGE Illinois, a nonprofit aiming to improve Illinois’ democracy, agreed. He said there hasn’t been a “realistic way for everyday people to get involved” in these public hearings.

Tolley’s organization received six days before they began.

“That barely gave us enough time, as advocates who get paid to do this, to get together and try to get a handle on what’s going on, much less try to involve everyday people in this process,” Tolley said. “I can’t think of anyone that works a fulltime job that, with a six-day notice, can take half a day off to come sit in a three-hour hearing for a chance to talk about their community.”

While some have raised concerns about the lack of participation in Chicago, House Assistant Minority Leader Tim Butler, a Republican representing the 87th district, said this trend has held true statewide. He said “the public at large has no idea these hearings are going on right now.”

This is due to reasons related to the pandemic in addition to how the hearings are divided up and labeled by region, he said. This format discourages people in other parts of the state from participating.

“We have wide swaths of the state in Western, Eastern and Southern Illinois that are not covered by any of these hearings and that’s a problem,” Butler noted. “I think people aren’t participating because if they think there’s a hearing for Northwest Cook or King County, then they can’t participate because that’s not where they live.”

Sen. Omar Aquino, a Democrat representing the 2nd district and chair of the Senate Redistricting committee, said the committee is trying its best to make sure the process is “as public as ever and as transparent as ever.”

These efforts include publicizing times, locations and information regarding all hearings with a minimum two -week notice and accepting oral and written testimony from the public, he said.

The public can also submit their own legislative maps to the public record through public portals on the House and Senate websites. These efforts have shown the committees dedication to garnering public input, Aquino argued.

“For those that are saying we haven’t done those things and haven’t done enough, we ask folks including our counterparts and colleagues on the other side to do their part and make sure people are getting that information when we put it out there,” he said. “Because that’s always something our Republican Party colleagues are claiming in our hearings but when we ask who they’ve reached out to, many times they are silent.”

Some still feel more needs to be done, including Illinois African Americans for Equitable Redistricting, which have called on the state legislature to hold hearings at times and locations that are more accessible to people in local communities.

Suggested locations include Austin Town Hall, Frederick Douglass Park, Garfield Park, Samuel Ellis Park, Chicago State University, Washington Park Field House, Beverly Arts Center and Homewood-Flossmoor High School.

Aquino said “we’re open to it.”

“We haven’t set aside any more from what we’ve already scheduled but I think we’re open to adding hearings if necessary,” he said, noting the committee has held over a dozen hearings so far. As of April 14, there are three hearings left with the last one scheduled for April 19, according to the Senate Redistricting Committee website. The House Redistricting Committee website shows six hearings left with the last one scheduled for April 24.

Demographic change

Census officials estimate Illinois has lost overall population since 2010, according to a presentation given during an April 3 redistricting public hearing. Illinois lost nearly 80,000 residents in 2020, which marked the seventh straight year of population decline, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, a regional planning organization for Northeast Illinois, reported in January.

This population loss could result in the removal of one of the state’s 18 congressional seats.

The state’s racial makeup also is shifting. White and African American populations are projected to decline statewide while Hispanic and Asian populations are projected to grow, according to the April 3 presentation.

Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (8th), a Democrat who represents parts of the Austin neighborhood, said he has seen changes to the West side’s racial makeup as well. 

Since the last redistricting cycle, the area has become more diverse, he said.

An analysis done by WBEZ 91.5 FM  found that between five-year periods ending in 2012 and 2017, some West side communities saw sizable population losses in Black and Latino populations. Austin lost nearly 6,900 black residents while seeing about 3,600 Latino residents moving in. The Lower West Side, which includes Pilsen, lost about 5,000 Latinos.

Asians were the demographic with the fastest rate of growth in the city and state, with their numbers increasing by about 19,000 residents in Chicago, according to the analysis. Most of this growth was near downtown, including in the Near West Side. The Near West Side and West Side also saw a considerable uptick in White residents, gaining about 3,500 each.

This demographic shift could mean fewer majority Black districts on the West Side and throughout the Chicago metropolitan area, Leonard said.

These majority Black districts allow residents to elect individuals who can understand and advocate for the issues unique to their given community, she said. That’s why she said she wants the state legislature to keep the North Lawndale community intact in light of the demographic changes.  She and other members of the Illinois African Americans for Equitable Redistricting coalition are calling for as many Black majority districts “as the data will allow,” she said.

“We just have to make sure there’s someone working just as hard for Black people as they are for any other group of interest,” Leonard said.

The coalition, Ford and Leonard are also concerned about a large population of Blacks and Latinos who are incarcerated at the time of the census and counted in the prisons they are being held in rather than in their last known home address. This allows the prison towns to benefit from resources that could have gone toward Black and brown communities, Ford said, adding if the prisoners can’t be counted at their last known address, they shouldn’t be counted at all.

“It’s a misrepresentation of a person’s rights,” he said. “They’re not counted in (the town’s) demographics but only to draw their maps, so we really need to remove those numbers from them.”

Members of Black and brown communities need to have conversations about redistricting and work together on issues that affect both groups, Ricardo Munoz, former member of the Chicago City Council, said.

“We are a majority minority city,” he said. “We should decide how to redistrict the city. Not the power brokers that want to maintain power.”

Ford agreed, noting that there has to be “strong advocacy” from members of all communities on the West Side to fight for their desired legislative boundaries.

“The goal is to have very competent people fighting for these districts to make sure Blacks have the representation and so Latinos have the representation they need,” he added. “We have to have that balance and we have to have these community organizations that are going to prove a case.”