Editor's Notebook: Population figures aren't a finished representation of the polity

Apr 1, 2001

Peggy Boyer Long
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

Political power is always relative. But at no time is this more apparent than in the period between the release of hard population numbers and the final draft of a new legislative map.

The trends documented by this latest decennial head count have been known for some time: Illinoisans, who constitute an increasingly diverse citizenry, continue a long-running migration from country to town, from city to suburb, while the locus of the state's populace and the political dominion persists in a northerly march to a mere six of 102 counties.

Proof of this in numerical detail can be mesmerizing, hypnotic in the manner of a pointillist painting on up-close inspection. Yet the figures released by the census bureau last month are discrete brush strokes, not a finished representation of Illinois' polity, however definitive the data might appear.

The lesson in "the relentless numbers," Charles N. Wheeler III writes this month, is clear. "The best way to overcome declining population in familiar territory is to make new friends on the other guy's turf."

Wheeler is referring, of course, to the cartographers' top concern: how to carve those six counties, more particularly, how to account for population growth in the so-called collar county suburbs that has surpassed the modest gains made by the city of Chicago. This is the ultimate political game between suburban-based Republicans and city-based Democrats. But Wheeler says this contest is not new, and the outcome is never a given, despite the difficulties the numbers seem to present for the Democrats.

Wheeler has the benefit of the long view. As a former reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, he covered the last three remaps. The first article he wrote for this magazine was about redistricting - some 7,000 words, he says, and we'll believe him. His historical assessment begins on page 24.

Certainly, if we see it as a mathematical challenge strictly, redistricting offers a simple equation. Illinois gained population overall and is now home to 12,419,293 people, nearly one million more than a decade ago. Because state representative and senate districts must encompass nearly the same number of residents, the target population for each representative district is now 105,248. Senate districts, in turn, contain two rep districts. Of 118 representative districts, 81 now have too few people living in them and 37 have too many. At the simplest, the districts with too few people will need to encompass more territory, while the districts with too many people will need to shrink. High-growth regions are, by this calculus, entitled to more representation. Read the suburbs at the expense of Chicago and downstate.

McHenry County, northwest of the city, grew by 41.9 percent. Will County, south of the city, grew by 40.6 percent. Meanwhile, some neighborhoods within the city and areas in the southern and central reaches of the state come up shy of the target population. This gap between the biggest winners and the biggest losers is striking. Democrat Wyvetter Younge's district, encompassing East St. Louis in the Metro East area, is under target by more than 24 percent. Republican Brent Hassert's district, encompassing suburban Romeoville, is over target by nearly 80 percent.

Still, the ultimate configuration of each of those districts, indeed of every district in the state, will be crafted relative to neighboring districts. And will be subject to interrelationships of the politicians who represent them.