A very different system: Ward boundary reform in Chicago

We have just published a briefing on the processes behind and reactions to the recently changed ward boundaries in Scotland, so on the same theme, and in the spirit of international local government comparison, LGiU Scotland’s Hannah Muirhead gives a quick introduction to her other favourite ward boundary change process.

I lived and worked in Chicago for a bit before I came to LGiU Scotland, and while I’m afraid I initially paid very little attention to the intricacies of the city’s ward system, it all got quite interesting when the 2015 aldermanic elections came around. From the campaign signs being displayed on front lawns in my neighbourhood, I discovered that I lived in Ward 26, but that if I walked fifty feet in three directions I ended up in Ward 1. My not-very-long walk to work took me to Ward 32, but led me in and out of Ward 1 and Ward 2 twice each, which was sufficient to spark an interest in the ward boundaries.

Turns out the first and second wards look like this:

What kind of a system could create such monstrosities?

One that starts off not so dissimilar to that of Scotland. Boundaries are reviewed every ten years to deal with population shifts, because US federal law dictates that, at all levels of government, there should be an equal number of constituents in each electoral jurisdiction. But that’s where the two systems diverge. And when I say diverge I mean rapidly and dramatically deviate.

There is no equivalent to Scotland’s Local Government Boundary Commission. In fact, there is no independent body involved in the process at all. There are no rules, other than parity, about what needs to be taken into account when changing a ward boundary, and there are generally no public consultations or opportunities for residents to object, like those we recently saw during the Scottish remap.

What does actually happen? Well, different caucuses made up from aldermen within the City Council, mostly organised along ethnic lines, file their own competing versions of the new ward map with the office of the City Clerk. The proposed maps are given useful and interesting names, and can then be amended and voted on by the aldermen in the Council. All behind closed doors. A map needs 41 votes or it gets put to public referendum.

In the most recent 2011/12 remap, “Map for a Better Chicago”, designed by the Black Caucus with help from the Old Guard (white aldermen), beat “Taxpayer Protection Plan” from the Latino Caucus by a super-convenient 41 votes to 8.

The chosen map wasn’t supposed to be used until the 2015 election, but decisions about important stuff like zoning changes and the distribution of neighbourhood improvement funds were being deferred to aldermen based on the new map almost as soon as it was approved… which was not ideal for Alderman Bob Fioretti of the Second Ward, who found he no longer actually lived in his ward. And neither did any of his constituents, because the whole thing has been moved north by eight miles and there is not a single inch of overlap.

I would say that if Ward 2 was any more intricately manipulated they could have probably got it to spell out the word “gerrymandering”, but while it is absolutely a casualty of this process, this ward is really more an assemblage of partial neighbourhoods that had no strategic value to anybody, strung together loosely with half-block-wide connectors. Stretched out so much that there’s no cohesion, no continuity of interest, and will be almost impossible to govern – effectively leaving its 55,805 residents without decent representation. And it’s not the only ward to suffer this fate.

Wards are the closest level of government to the people. Communities, as well as units of governance. In Scotland last year we saw amendments being made to the proposed map in order to maintain local ties where possible. While parity was the most important factor in drawing the Scottish ward boundaries, keeping communities intact was a genuine concern – which is just not the current reality in Chicago.

Parity was to be the main consideration in the Chicago remap too – it was, after all, the whole, federally mandated, reason for making the changes – but new ward populations vary by 8.7%, ranging from 51,455 to 56,170 rather than 50 wards of around 54,000, leaving the basic objective of “one person, one vote” somewhat neglected.

To summarise, in Chicago, boundaries are drawn by the aldermen and voted on by the aldermen; a system which leaves the city with a ward map that is designed more to protect incumbent politicians than to actually serve its citizens.

The recent changing of Scotland’s local government ward boundaries was not without its controversies – most resulting from changes in council representation levels, the addition of deprivation as a factor to be considered, and the length of time it took to complete the reviews – but, having experienced the Chicago way, I have a heightened appreciation for the Scottish system, and I think the bottom line is that we can all be happy that none of our wards look like lobsters.

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Photo Credit: thelostscot copyright Hannah Muirhead 2016

    1. Crawford says:

      I remember reading about this last year whilst visiting Chicago. A huge sprawling city of vast inequalities. I took one of the L-trains to the end of the line to visit Stony Island Arts Bank. An arts organisation building community in a strange landscape of crumbling homes , vacant lots and brand new speculative housing developments. A city with an obvious fractured built environment compounded by a fractured local authority boundaries. Sad.

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