Politics: Democratic cartographers will have to convert luck into majorities

Oct 1, 2001

Charles N. Wheeler III
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

When Secretary of State Jesse White drew the name of former Illinois Supreme Court Justice Michael Bilandic out of a stovepipe hat last month to give Democrats control of legislative redistricting, the response among that party’s representatives on hand seemed rather subdued compared to the partisan exuberance seen in the past.

Perhaps their response was muted out of deference to the venue: The drawing was conducted in the House chamber of the Old State Capitol, where Abraham Lincoln gave his “House Divided” address.

Or Democratic elation may have been tempered by sober reflection on the challenges party cartographers face in converting the luck of the draw into majorities in the Illinois General Assembly for the next decade.

The Democrats already control the House, 62-56, as they have for all but two years under the map Republicans drew in 1991. But the Senate has been in GOP hands since then; currently, Republicans hold a 32-27 edge in that chamber, which mapmakers needed to figure out how to overcome.

The first problem for the Democrats was the Census 2000 numbers, which revealed a boom-and-bust pattern of population growth during the 1990s. While the state as a whole grew by almost a million people, the gains were not uniform. About three-quarters of the growth occurred in suburban Cook and the collar counties, long regarded as Republican strongholds. The Democrats’ traditional power base, the city of Chicago, grew by only 4 percent, while more than a third of the 96 downstate counties lost population.

As a result, four out of every five Democratic incumbents were in districts that had fewer residents than the target number dictated by one person, one vote — 210,496 for Senate districts and 105,248 for House districts.

Moreover, every current district drawn to have a black majority was down in population, as were three out of the four Hispanic House districts and one of the two Hispanic Senate districts.

Further complicating matters for Democratic mapmakers, Chicago’s growth — the city’s first in 50 years — was largely the result of a roughly 210,000-surge in the number of Hispanics, who rightly believed their numbers merited additional legislative seats, some likely to come at the expense of non-Hispanic Democrats.

The first problem for the Democrats was the Census 2000 numbers, which revealed a boom-and-bust pattern of population growth during the 1990s. While the state as a whole grew by almost a million people, the gains were not uniform.

Given such constraints, one might have wondered how party mapmakers could craft a plan that would achieve their two foremost objectives: elect Democratic majorities and protect incumbents. The map unveiled a few weeks ago relied on several approaches. 


  • Extended some city-based districts into suburban turf to meet population targets without jeopardizing city, and hence Democratic, control. In particular, existing districts with African-American majorities were stretched farther into the western and southern suburbs, taking advantage of an almost 30 percent increase in the number of black residents there. As a result, the map maintained the current numbers of black districts, eight in the Senate and 18 in the House.
  • Doubled the number of districts in which the majority of residents are Hispanic. The map crafted four Senate and eight House districts centered around Hispanic neighborhoods on Chicago’s northwest and southwest sides and nearby suburbs. Moreover, two other House districts drawn around Aurora and Elgin each have 40 percent or more Hispanic populations. Adding in the African-American population, the Aurora district is roughly 57 percent minority, giving a Democratic candidate a decent chance at winning.
  • Kept large urban areas downstate in single House districts, rather than split them up as Republicans did a decade ago. For example, the map places most of Champaign and Urbana — and their University of Illinois students — in the same House district, one expected to have Democratic leanings. A decade ago, Republicans divided the towns between two districts, each filled with lots of GOP-friendly rural turf. Democrats also consolidated urban areas elsewhere downstate, including Rockford, Springfield, Bloomington-Normal and Decatur.
  • Carved up Republican-held districts downstate to provide Democratic districts with the extra population needed to make the target numbers.
  • Mapped 38 incumbent lawmakers — including eight GOP senators — into the same districts. Another Senate Republican was paired with a Demo-crat whom the district was drawn to favor. Eight House Republicans were paired, and three others placed in districts with Democratic incumbents. For most, the map posed the unpleasant choices of running against a party mate in the primary, moving to another district, looking at another office, or retiring. 
  • Left six Senate and 13 House districts open. While many are in GOP-leaning areas, Democratic hopefuls stand a better chance of pulling an upset without a Republican incumbent. 

Republicans bitterly attacked the plan, of course, denouncing it as — gasp! — “blatantly partisan,” “unfair,” and an effort “to eliminate the two-party system in Illinois.” If their squawks evoked a sense of deja vu, it’s probably because Democrats leveled the same charges when Republicans did the gerrymandering 10 years ago.

Assuming the plan survives the inevitable Republican legal challenges, as happened with the 1981 Democratic map and the 1991 Republican effort, Democratic leaders aren’t quite finished. They still must find quality candidates, mount effective campaign operations and raise big bucks if they are to win legislative majorities next year, when all 59 Senate and 118 House seats are up.

But the deck will be stacked in their favor not only in 2002, but in the next four elections as well. For Democrats, that’s surely something to cheer about. 


Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Illinois Issues, October, 2001