Chicago’s Ward Mapping, the Process and Why Some W...

Chicago’s Ward Mapping, the Process and Why Some Want It Independent

With the 2020 census complete, the ward remapping process is just around the corner. As Chicago’s ward remapping process takes place this year, many Chicago residents are calling for a change in the process.

The city’s 50 wards, delimited regions within Chicago each of which is represented by an alderperson in City Council, are gerrymandered into a variety of unrecognizable shapes and split up many of Chicago neighborhoods.

For instance, Englewood is split into six different wards, making it difficult for residents to figure out which alderman to reach out to for local government assistance and elevating confusion regarding residents’ local polling locations.

Chicago’s City Council is responsible for the mapping of these wards; however, some claim the current process lacks communication with the public. More specifically, some think there is little communication between City Council and the people of Chicago regarding how the mapping process works — or the progress being made.

“That process in Chicago is a process where there hasn’t been a lot of transparency,” Liliana Scales, advocacy director at CHANGE Illinois, said. “There’s no timeline that you can see on Chicago’s website that says, ‘We’re starting to have conversation[s] this day, this day we approve the map and this day it’s enacted.’”

The only set deadline put in place is a due date in December 2021.

The wards are broken down by demographic and population statistics collected by the Census, and according to Scales, the wards have traditionally been set at 54,000 residents per ward.

CHANGE Illinois believes that some aldermen are bartering to get their ward mapped in a way to increase their chance at getting re-elected to City Council.

“When aldermen are choosing their wards, they’re literally choosing their voters,” Scales said. “They protect their incumbency and they’re able to stay in office, like Alderman [Ed] Burke, who is under 14 counts of federal indictment.”

Burke’s counts of federal indictment include racketeering, attempted extortion, conspiracy to commit extortion and using interstate commerce to facilitate an unlawful activity.

Despite these charges, which Burke plead not guilty to, Burke was still re-elected in the 14th Ward — and Scales believes that gerrymandering was responsible for that.

Burke’s ward has a sliver of Garfield Ridge, a predominantly white neighborhood, that helped balance out Archer Heights and Brighton Park neighborhoods, both of which are predominantly Hispanic.

This portion of Garfield Ridge voted 70 percent for Burke, therefore, boosting his total votes in the 2019 election to 3,759 with nearly 54 percent of the vote, just enough for Burke to declare his victory and avoid a runoff.

Robert Vargas, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, wrote in an email that Burke, along with former Alderman Richard Mell, would draw the new wards and present them individually to each alderman. Once enough votes were in place for the map to pass through City Council, they would present their proposed map. This goes back for the past 30 years, according to Vargas.

After reaching out to Alderman Burke’s office several times via phone and email over a nearly two-month time period, there was not a single response to remapping inquiries.

Possibly the most famous ward for its gerrymandering is the 2nd Ward, which is notorious for its shape resembling a lobster. Currently, Alderman Brian Hawkins holds the seat to this ward, and has since 2015 — after the current remap was applied.

This ward is home to several different neighborhoods that, clearly, are not associated geographically. Another interesting point is that the 2nd Ward was formerly located just south of downtown compared to the latest mapping where the 2nd Ward finds home just north of downtown Chicago.

Legislatively, CHANGE Illinois is advocating for an independent redistricting commission. They don’t necessarily want to take the mapping away from the City Council entirely but want to incorporate more external influence.

“We are saying that it needs to be transparent and include community input,” Scales said. “Not just community input where you willy nilly host meetings, only hosting for the sake of song and dance.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has also called for an independent review of the ward remapping process; however, there has been no official action from the mayor’s office or City Council to implement any changes.

CHANGE Illinois completed a survey to determine how Chicago residents think the community should be involved in the mapping process, with a vast majority of respondents stating they strongly agree that the community should play a role in the remapping process.

A total of 187 respondents stated they strongly agree that community members should hold a spot in conversations about remapping the wards. Meanwhile, 64 responded that they agree, followed with only nine others that said they were neutral, disagree or strongly disagree.

Vargas wrote that many of the highly gentrified, split up neighborhoods face frequent and dramatic remapping changes and tend to experience more violence.

“If you ask why certain communities are not receiving the violence prevention resources they need, the increased administrative burden of coordinating across multiple jurisdictions plays an important role in perpetuating the problem,” Vargas wrote in an email.

The neighborhoods of Austin, Little Village, Chicago Lawn, Englewood, Chatham and East Garfield Park are all very split when it comes to the mapping of wards. They are often split into various wards, such as Englewood, which is home to six different wards, but they also are six of Chicago’s neighborhoods with high violence rates.

Meanwhile Lincoln Park, Beverly, Bridgeport, Edison Park, Hyde Park and West Ridge are typically more affluent areas, with homes in some of those neighborhoods reaching well over a million dollars, and have little to no variance in their remapping over the last several mappings — mostly being mapped to neighborhood lines.

“Some neighborhoods like Bridgeport and the Gold Coast have managed to be mapped into a ward for [nearly] a century,” Vargas said in an email. “History suggests that race and economics has a lot to do with that.”

Chicago has several gerrymandered wards and this trend appears to just keep on going, as shown by the 1986 and 2015 versions of the 2nd Ward being centered on opposite sides of downtown Chicago. The remapping process is mandated to be completed this coming December so time to make changes for an independent review is dwindling.


Header image by Yusra Shah.
Maps by Cam Rodriguez.