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End and Means: Mapmaking Sure to Present Challenges for Lawmakers

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

In a few weeks, the U.S. Census Bureau is scheduled to deliver to Illinois and our sister states detailed demographic breakdowns on the populace’s age, gender, race and other characteristics, virtually on a block-by-block basis.

The fruits of last year’s federal census, the vast amount of information will become the raw material for the decade’s most intensely political endeavor, drawing new district maps for the Illinois General Assembly and the state’s congressional delegation.

And for the first time in the modern era of “one person, one vote” mapmaking, the entire process here will be controlled from start to finish by one party, the reward reaped by Illinois Democrats in November by maintaining their legislative majorities and by electing Gov. Pat Quinn in his own right.

One would assume the Democratic monopoly will mean the maps will be drawn by May 31, the constitutional deadline before the cartographic task heads to a bipartisan commission, potentially handing the pen to Republicans in a winner-take-all random drawing to break a stalemate.

But the census data is likely to pose some challenges for the Democrats, just as the numbers did a decade ago when the party won the right to craft the current map, under which Democrats have held Senate and House majorities for five straight elections.

The official 2010 count, released in late December by the census bureau, showed an increase of about 411,000 residents in Illinois, to slightly more than 12.8 million, from 12.4 million in 2000. But the detailed breakdown, due by April 1, won’t show a uniform 3.3 percent increase across the state’s 102 counties, according to population estimates the census bureau released last year. Instead, close to 90 percent of the growth is likely to be concentrated in the five collar counties, particularly Kane and Will, the estimates suggest. In fact, Chicago and suburban Cook County may have lost people since 2000.

Outside the Chicago area, population gains are likely to be spotty, based on the earlier estimates. Counties close to Chicago, such as Kendall — tabbed by the census bureau as one of the nation’s fastest-growing areas — Boone, DeKalb and Grundy are expected to post double-digit gains. Major urban areas farther out — Champaign-Urbana, Bloomington-Normal, Springfield, Peoria and the Metro East — also are expected to show growth.

Elsewhere south of I-80, the news is not likely to be good. The census projections show declining populations in roughly four out of every five of the other 71 counties in central and southern Illinois.

The uneven growth means a lot of current lawmakers — mostly downstate, but also some in Chicago and suburban Cook — now are representing districts that have too few residents to meet the new population standards of approximately 108,732 for the Illinois House and 217,464 for the state Senate. Conversely, most legislators from collar county districts are likely to have excess population.

Such a disparity would mirror 2000, when only 20 of the 59 existing Senate districts and 37 of the 118 existing House districts were populous enough to meet the required numbers. Illustrating the problem then, the largest House district had almost 190,000 inhabitants; the smallest, fewer than 80,000. Roughly four out of every five Democratic incumbents were short population, while incumbent Republicans broke about even.

Faced with those numbers, party map-makers followed several proven strategies to craft Democratic-leaning districts. The techniques included:

  • Extending Chicago-anchored districts into suburbia to meet population targets without jeopardizing party control. The task was simplified by substantial growth in the minority population in suburbs to the west and to the south of the city.
  • Building some downstate districts around large urban areas, like Champaign-Urbana, rather than splitting cities between districts dominated by rural, thus likely Republican, voters, a technique GOP cartographers used in drawing the 1991 map.
  • Fashioning more districts in which the majority of residents were Hispanic, to a total of four in the Senate and eight in the House, double the 1991 count.

Expect Democrats to follow the same playbook this spring, with an especially strong emphasis on crafting districts in which minority voters — chiefly Hispanic, but also African-American and Asian — can play a greater role.
Underscoring the effort to strengthen minority voting power, the outgoing legislature approved a measure requiring mapmakers to draw districts in which racial or language minorities would have a better chance to elect a candidate of their choice or to influence the outcome of the voting.

Hispanics in particular are a key ethnic component for mapmakers. While not a racial category in the census, respondents who identified themselves as Hispanic are expected to make up more than 60 percent of the state’s population growth, according to some estimates. Census projections had the state’s non-Hispanic black population basically holding steady, Asians increasing by about 30 percent, and non-Hispanic whites declining.

Moreover, Illinois Hispanics are fast becoming a reliable Democratic voting bloc, thanks in part to a national Republican agenda that many see as hostile to their interests. The latest evidence of the perceived GOP antipathy came in December, when minority Republicans in the U.S. Senate led the effort to kill the so-called DREAM Act, a proposal that would have provided a road to citizenship for undocumented young people brought to the United States as children, if they had high school or GED degrees and completed two years in the military or in college.

“This is a critical political moment, and the Latino community and the entire nation will surely hold accountable the political leaders who cravenly blocked progress today,” declared Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), a leading legal civil rights organization, in the wake of the Senate vote.

As they prepare to draw new legislative and congressional districts, Illinois Democrats surely are hoping his words are prophetic.

For the first time in the modern era of “one person, one vote” mapmaking, the entire process here will be controlled from start to finish by one party, the reward reaped by Illinois Democrats in November by maintaining their legislative majorities and by electing Gov. Pat Quinn in his own right.

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

Illinois Issues, February 2011

The former director of the Public Affairs Reporting (PAR) graduate program is Professor Charles N. Wheeler III, a veteran newsman who came to the University of Illinois at Springfield following a 24-year career at the Chicago Sun-Times.
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