Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Redistricting hearings come to Springfield

By Jamey Dunn

Representatives of several regional, racial, ethnic and religious interest groups appealed to members of the Senate Redistricting committee today, asking that their communities not be split among several districts when the new legislative map is drawn. However, reform advocates questioned whether the public hearings will have much bearing on the map that will ultimately be approved.

The Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community has called on multiple occasions for Chinatown in Chicago to remain in one legislative district. The neighborhood was split into several districts under the current map approved 10 years ago, and as a result, Chinese community leaders feel that the community is underrepresented. “We are all by now familiar with the example of the greater Chinatown area in Chicago, a cohesive community that has experienced unfair fragmentation,” said Ami Gandhi, legal director for the Asian American Institute. However, Gandhi’s organization has identified concentrated Asian populations in northern Chicago, Des Plaines and near Skokie that they say should also not be split among districts.

However, lawmakers on the committee raised concerns that some of the areas the group has highlighted as having growing Asian communities have also seen a growth in Hispanic populations and said they would also have to consider the interests of those residents. Gandhi said that she agrees that the considerations of both groups are important to the process.

While the state’s Hispanic population grew by 32.5 percent and the Asian population increased by 38.6 percent, the African-American population decreased by 1 percent statewide and 17.2 percent in Chicago, according to U.S. Census data. With those shifts in population, the potential loss of at least one traditionally African-American legislative district looms.

“The right to vote is meaningless if one’s vote isn’t effective,” said Phyllis Logan, a representative of the Westside Branch of the NAACP of Chicago. “The 2001 map was a success from the standpoint of African-Americans and indeed from the standpoint of history. … Please do not tamper with this African-American success story, which is also an American success story. African-American voters and legislators are now ingrained in the fabric of the political legislative processes in Illinois.”

Logan argued that the demolition of low-income housing units in Chicago has forced some groupings of African-Americans to become disperse, and therefore lose some political power. “Respecting existing relationships [between voters and their representatives] also means being cognizant of the effect of political decisions of the past decade that have dispersed black populations that resided in large housing complexes [that] the city of Chicago chose to eliminate.”

Logan also called on lawmakers to count prison inmates in their home communities for census data instead of the location of the prison where they are incarcerated. Legislation that would make that change failed to receive the necessary votes in the House but was held by sponsor Chicago Democrat La Shawn Ford for a potential future vote.

“Certain commentators and media outlets have portrayed as a foregone conclusion that Illinois’ slower population growth and diversifying demographics means that black representation must be decreased,” Logan said. She said it is unfair that the media is focusing only on the shifts in African-American populations as a justification for eliminating representation in the black community. “Whites, not African-Americans, have experienced the greatest decrease as a proportion of the state's population. ... The most accurate characterization of the census data is that Illinois is less white.”

While most of the jockeying for districts will likely occur in the northern part of the state, some downstate representatives also appealed to the committee.

Dennis Fisher from Shelby County in central Illinois asked that the county not be split into multiple districts.
Fisher said the county of 20,000 people has four state representatives, three state senators and two U.S. congressmen. “I’m here today to seek less representation,” Fischer said. “Most of our people are confused [about] where to go [and] who their representative are."

Transparency advocates have called on the committee to present potential maps to the public for review.

Whitney Woodward, a policy associate for the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, questioned whether information and testimony submitted at the public hearings would be used in the process. “Is that information submitted from the public going to be taken into consideration by the map drawers, and will their comments be incorporated into the new map? Or will the hours of testimony already taken by this committee, the additional hours yet to come and the public comments solicited by this committee's website be disregarded when the borders are finally constructed.”

Woodward said that if legislators are truly concerned with making the process open, they must make drafts of the maps they intend to vote on available to the public for at least two weeks before a vote. “It’s not only the quantity of the committee hearings but the quality of those hearings that matters.”

The Illinois House has scheduled 15 redistricting committee hearings. The Senate has five scheduled hearings and committee members say the group plans to schedule more in the future.


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