Starting at noon Monday at the Bilandic Building in downtown Chicago, the public aspect of the state redistricting process will begin. Additional Senate committee hearings are scheduled for April 6 in Springfield, April 16 in Kankakee and Peoria and April 19 in Cicero, but on Monday the largest metropolitan area gets a say, and it should be fascinating to watch.
With the recent Illinois Voting Rights Act of 2011 (SB3976) now signed, the focus turns to how Illinois Democrats balance the need to protect and increase Democratic congressional and state districts with the need to create "crossover districts," "coalition districts," and "influence districts." Can the committee do all of this in a public, open, and inclusive manner so as to appear above board?
The short answer is: possible, but not likely.
To be honest, I am not sure they even should. Elections have consequences, no more so than in a redistricting year. During this process a congressional district will be lost, and thanks to the November election, it won't come from a Democratic stronghold. You can be sure backroom deals about how to best break up districts to improve Democratic numbers are already happening. If it almost seems naive to you to believe that every aspect of the process is going to be public and a part of the upcoming hearings, well... you're feeling that way because it is.
Where the hearings could be interesting and productive is in correcting the wrongs of the past. The Illinois Voting Rights Act of 2011 has already been re-coined the Chinatown redistricting bill and for good reason. While the Chinatown area isn't exactly large, previous redistricting divided it into three state Senate districts, four state House districts and three congressional districts. This division intentionally created no opportunity for the community to build an effective organization and promote candidates from within. While that wrong will no doubt be corrected, there are numerous other situations throughout the state and city of Chicago that are worth watching.
Take the Indian/Pakistani American population on the far north side, particularly the so-called Devon Desi corridor. How much consideration is this region going to be getting in the next redraw? Currently Devon is divided up by Illinois representative districts 13, 14, 15, and a large contingent into 16 which also includes Niles (a city having an overwhelming percentage of Caucasian residents).
The largest growth appears to be from the Latino population, but early census data shows no logical district that can be carved out yet follows the state constitution that districts must be "compact, contiguous and substantially equal in population." It is not for a lack of creativity in the process, (take a look at the 4th Congressional District), it is just that Latinos are not living in large groups that make logical contiguous districts possible.
On a smaller scale you have the cut-outs, and random-looking additions to the district maps, no doubt used to pick up precise homes, apartment complexes or whole micro-communities. One cutout that I am watching (and will be providing testimony Monday about) is located in the Rogers Park neighborhood in the far southeast corner of the Illinois 18th representative district. While most of the 18th deals with the Evanston and New Trier lakefront, tucked in the corner is a sliver of Chicago's 49th ward. Some of the wealthier residents of the ward call it "no man's land", a thinly disguised phrase to represent an area north of Howard Ave with a high crime rate and even higher black-to-white ratio of residents. It is home to poorer working families, refugee immigrants, gangs, a few couples who bought in the last housing craze, a struggling school and has the largest community soup kitchen in the Chicago metro area. The area creates an odd juxtaposition to the million-dollar-plus homes of the Evanston lakefront that make up a larger part of the district just to the north. Despite the quality of the region's representatives, one also has to question the level of involvement and commitment to the sliver of Chicago that makes up such a small percentage of representative's total voters.
While I am not privy to why a predominantly suburb district of mostly affluent, white home-owners includes this section of Chicago, I have my thoughts as to why it was done. All of them start with the fact that like many parts of the city, Rogers Park's diversity can be neutralized by breaking up voting blocks of minorities. In theory, this is what SB 3976 is supposed to fix, but you have to wonder if cut-outs similar to this are too small and lack the organized effort (shown in Chinatown) to get redrawn.