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Demographic wave may wash
out Democratic majorities

Charles N Wheeler III


The human tides charted by the 1990 census threaten to sweep away the Democratic party's decade-long dominance of the Illinois General Assembly. Chicago's population ebbed during the 1980s, the census showed, while suburbia's numbers surged, in a massive flood of humanity carrying with it political power.

While the demographic flow the census tracked hardly was surprising to anyone who follows urban affairs, just how strong the currents ran did not hit home for many legislative watchers until block-by-block census data was compiled into legislative district population figures. Though analyses prepared independently by redistricting aides to the legislative leaders did not agree down to the final person, the pictures they painted were similar:

A dramatic loss of population on Chicago's west and south sides that left most black lawmakers tens of thousands of residents short of the target populations for the new districts.

A huge increase in suburban and collar county residents that left more than two dozen Republican incumbents with 10 thousand or more excess constituents.

A marked decline in 22 downstate districts that left 15 senators and 35 representatives 31 of them Democrats shy by anywhere from a few hundred to more than 22,000 people in their districts.

Statewide, according to GOP analyses, three of every four Democratic lawmakers are in districts with too few people, while almost three out of every five Republicans have constituents to spare.

A prime directive in political cartography, of course, is to protect incumbents, so such numbers indicate the sort of challenge facing Democrats. Given a free hand, Democratic mapmakers might be able to overcome such long odds through careful adjustment of district lines. But the Democrats lost their best and perhaps only chance at unfettered redistricting with the election of Gov. Jim Edgar, who will veto any map not to the liking of Republican leaders.

Moreover, a paramount concern as new maps are produced must be to fashion safe districts for minority lawmakers in Chicago whose old neighborhoods have lost thousands of people. Leaders of both parties say they are committed to maximizing the number of blacks and Hispanics both in the Congress and the state legislature. Their motives are not wholly altruistic, of course; any redistricting plan that falls short on minority representation will face tough sledding in the inevitable court challenges to follow.

The legislative analyses detailed population shortfalls ranging from about 10 percent to almost 20 percent in Chicago's six west and south side Senate districts now represented by black Democrats, while their counterparts in a dozen minority House districts are short from 8 percent to almost 24 percent. The decline may reflect the Census Bureau's inability to count inner-city residents accurately, as some black leaders contend, rather than actual population loss. But census officials aren't expected to announce before mid-July whether their numbers will be adjusted, so for all practical purposes the current information is what must be used to draw new legislative and congressional districts this spring.

To preserve minority representation in the dozen House and half-dozen Senate districts now served by black legislators, thousands of new people must be found for them. About 170,000 more people would be needed for the six Senate districts an average of 28,000 per district to meet the one-person, one-vote population target of 193,739 residents in each district. The dozen House districts (two in each of the Senate districts) are shy of the target of 96,870 by about the same amount, or an average of about 14,000 each. There's only one way to find those new people, They must come from neighboring districts with white incumbents, in a domino effect that inevitably will squeeze some veteran

6/May 1991/Illnois Issues

Chicago Democrats into new, increasingly suburban, likely hostile, territory.

At the same time, Hispanic leaders argue that their growing numbers entitle them to increased representation beyond the single senator and two House members now of Hispanic descent. Preserving the existing Hispanic Senate district on the city's near northwest side will require finding almost 10,000 new people from next-door districts, while a second Hispanic Senate district would have to be carved largely out of south side turf now held by scions of two prominent political dynasties Sen. John A. D'Arco Jr. and Sen. John P. Daley.

Moreover, when mapmakers push minority district lines into new territory, they run the risk that an influx of whites could tip the minority population below 65 percent, the minimum share generally deemed necessary to elect a minority lawmaker. In fact, that percentage might be too low, given the disproportionately low turnout among black and Hispanic voters in the most recent Chicago municipal elections.

While the city's population losses present serious problems for democratic cartographers, the census numbers afford nothing but opportunity to Republican mapmakers, who are free to fashion city districts that enhance minority strength without the qualms Democrats must feel about jeopardizing white incumbents. In addition, the suburban surge the census recorded entitles those generally GOP bastions to additional seats.

Thirteen of 18 suburban and collar county Senate districts all with GOP incumbents grew during the 1980s, a half dozen by 23 percent or more. And two of the five that lost population elected Democrats throughout the decade. In the House, 24 of 37 suburban districts gained population, all but two with Republicans, while seven of the 13 districts that lost population are Democratic.

Outside the Chicago area, there's more bad news for Democrats. Nine of their 11 senators and 22 of their 27 House members are in districts with less population than the redistricting targets.

The numbers suggest that Remap 91, like an incoming wave, could wash away the Democratic majorities of the 1980s.

Charles N. Wheeler III is a correspondent in the Springfield Bureau of the Chicago Sun-Times.

May 1991/Illinois Issues/7

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