The Chicago Advisory Redistricting Commission has begun accepting applications to be part of a citizen’s commission to redraw Chicago’s wards. By law, Chicago must redraw its wards every ten years following demographic changes recorded by the U.S. Census. According to the law, forty-one councilmembers are needed to approve a map without a referendum, but if only ten councilmembers support an independent map, the issue will automatically go before voters. By January of next year, if all goes well, Chicagoans will be voting on new boundaries for their wards.
The commission is backed by numerous good government organizations, groups that support ethnic minorities underrepresented on the city council, and Mayor Lightfoot. As a candidate, Lightfoot called for ending gerrymandering in the city by removing the drawing of ward boundaries completely from councilmembers and putting the responsibility in the hands of an independent commission. However, after becoming mayor, Lightfoot softened her position. While she still supports ending gerrymandering, she now believes councilmembers should be involved in the process. So far, the mayor’s office has not explained how an “independent” commission is supposed to function with the council’s involvement. Still, if done right, the redrawing of ward boundaries could have a critical impact on bringing much need representation to the council, both in terms of demographics and political ideology.
Constant gerrymandering in Chicago has meant that its electoral map is snarled mess. Chicago has several distinct communities, but often none of them have any clear representation on the council. For years, a “good old boys” club of machine councilmembers have used the drawing of ward boundaries as political playthings. Shifting the boundaries of a ward by a few blocks has allowed them to avoid voter accountability, disenfranchise minorities, and eliminate electoral threats from progressive candidates.
After Chicago’s 2019 municipal elections, it was clear that the city’s old political machine—dominated by white (primarily Irish and Polish) men—had become decrepit. Twelve new councilmembers were elected. Among the freshmen, there were five women, three African Americans, five Hispanics, two councilmembers who identified as LGBTQ, and five socialists. No doubt, disparities still exist, but after 2019 it was clear that the city council was far more representative of Chicago than it had been in the past.
The council’s most significant change was Lori Lightfoot’s electoral victory over Cook County Board President and Chair of the Cook County Democratic Party, Toni Preckwinkle. The fact that the runoff became a race between two African American women, one an open lesbian, was telling. Bill Daley, the favored candidate of the city’s aging political bosses, did not make it to the runoff. Former Assistant State’s Attorney General Jerry Joyce swooped up the conservative Irish Catholic vote in Chicago’s Northwestern corner. Not only did this vote splitting deny Daley an expected first-place finish, but it pushed him down to third place, effectively knocking him out of the race.
Lightfoot would go on to overwhelmingly defeat Preckwinkle, receiving 74% of the vote and winning all fifty of Chicago’s wards. Pundits attributed Lightfoot’s victory to her ability to associate Preckwinkle with the 14th ward councilmember Ed Burke’s corruption. In late December 2018, the FBI raided Burke’s office. A week later, the criminal complaint charged Burke with extortion. He had allegedly blocked a driveway permit for a Burger King restaurant owner in his ward and refused to relinquish the permit until the restaurant’s owner hired his law firm to handle their property taxes and agreed to give a $10,000 campaign contribution to Toni Preckwinkle’s 2018 Cook County Board President campaign. The scandal was too much for Chicagoans. They voted hard against Preckwinkle and threw out incumbent councilmembers. Despite everything, Burke himself survived. The 2019 municipal elections were a turning point for Chicago, but for entrenched politicians like Ed Burke, they were more of the same.
On its face, there is no reason Burke should have won the race. His is grossly out-of-touch with his ward. As an elderly Irishman, he is an odd representative for a ward that has become increasingly young and Hispanic. He is, by far, the city’s longest serving councilmember. He was first elected in 1968 and has held the position continuously from that point. Despite his outward appearance as a loyal liberal Democrat, he has aligned with many well-known conservatives, including legally representing former president Donald Trump in property tax disputes. Through the 1980s, Burke was notoriously at odds with Chicago’s now beloved Mayor Harold Washington, often fomenting racist attacks again him. Being a former police officer, Burke has acted as an apologist for the Chicago Police Department’s heinous misconduct, including supporting Commander Jon Burge’s torture regime.
Burke’s ongoing electoral success is primarily the result to his ability to control the Chicago City Council’s opaque process for drawing ward maps. Through backroom deals, Burke has worked to extend his ward along 51st Street and South Archer (switching to 51st Street and 53rd Street at South Mayfield Avenue) and finally ending at South Normandy Avenue, approximately thirty blocks from where the ward map was a decade ago. With this redraw, the 14th ward now straddles Chicago’s western suburbs. The majority of residents of the 14th ward are Hispanic, but—unsurprisingly—the strip along 51st Street contains an abundance of conservative white households. This is the group of voters that backs Burke. As long as voter turnout remains moderately low—which it was during the 2019 election—Burke will continue to win in his ward handily.
The 14th ward is a notable case but gerrymandering in Chicago is ubiquitous. The city’s entire electoral map is full of oddities and idiosyncratic shapes that reinforce social disparities. If Chicago’s city council had racial parity with the rest of the city, the ethnic divisions of councilmembers would approximately be sixteen whites, sixteen African Americans, sixteen Hispanics, and two Asians. Instead, there is no Asian representation currently on the council; meanwhile, Hispanics are underrepresented (currently only eleven councilmembers), and whites (nineteen members) and African Americans (twenty members) are overrepresented. Despite only making up approximately 16% of Chicago’s population, white men make up approximately 28% of the city council.
Also, as paradoxical as it seems, African Americans’ overrepresentation has led to certain predominantly black neighborhoods being denied a voice. When Englewood was originally annexed into Chicago, it was reasonably split between two councilmembers. However, as the ward’s demographics shifted and its population became predominantly African American, white councilmembers split the neighborhood among multiple councilmembers. By the 1970s, Englewood was divided among five wards. Today, the neighborhood is divided among six different wards: 3, 6, 15, 16, 17, and 20. Five of those councilmembers are African American, and the sixth one is Hispanic, but none of them could be said to truly represent the neighborhood.
In terms of politics, gerrymandering has been used to force dissident voices off the council. In 2007, the 2nd ward elected the liberal civil rights lawyer Bob Fioretti to serve as its councilmember. Fioretti turned out to be an annoying figure for Mayor Richard M. Daley. Throughout his time on council, Fioretti only voted with the mayor 52% of the time. In response, Mayor M. Daley gerrymandered Fioretti’s electoral base out of existence. The 2nd ward went from a boxy shape encompassing the South Loop’s eastern edge to a geometric monstrosity. Currently, the ward resembles a lobster with a stovetop hat. Its continuity is strained to the point of lunacy.
Ending Chicago’s gerrymandering is not a radical issue. It has support across the city’s political spectrum. Standing in the way are a handful of well-positioned councilmembers, party hacks, and a few city bureaucrats who loath democratic representation. Still, without ending gerrymandering, it is nearly impossible for Chicago to make more meaningful and transformative changes. Empowering average citizens—especially to take on the more entrenched issues of economic equality and racial segregation—begins with addressing Chicago’s fundamentally flawed and unfair electoral system.