Redistricting Conundrums, Chicago Style

The Chicago City Council approved a new ward map in 2012 amid the usual accusations and claims of partisan dealing. There were complaints that wards 2 and 36 were vicious gerrymanders and good government groups complained of little transparency during the process. Criticisms like these are typical after any map is enacted since redistricting is by its very nature; a political process. What makes Chicago’s redistricting different? The city council took the extra step of making the new ward map effective “immediately.” Local elections are not scheduled to take place until 2015, but council members implemented a policy making the new districts effective for local government disbursements by ward such as permits, special tax funding and the delivery of other city services. Critics call this a clear case of incumbents trying to shore up votes for elections in the new districts and have filed a lawsuit.

The legal challenge, headed by the League of Women Voters of Chicago disputes the immediate effective date of the districts since it changes who represents some voters without a valid election. This they say circumvents voter’s rights to elect city council members of their own choosing, in violation of the 14th amendment. The lawsuit also challenges population variances among districts, which top out at 8.7%.

The “effective date” portion of this case may be one of first impression (do comment if you know of any similar cases), but the conundrum it represents is common. As many people involved in the redistricting process can attest to, one of the most common questions from the public –and insiders too, is when do the new districts become effective? Is it the day they are passed/enacted or at some point in the future? – Perhaps on election day of the first election under the new map or the day that lawmakers are sworn into office in the districts? The answer is…it’s complicated.

Generally, new districts are effective ‘for purposes of the upcoming election’ when they are enacted (or precleared in section 5 states). As for “other” purposes; that depends on state law. Some states with statutory provisions that depend on legislative districts in some way could specify how to treat redistricted lines, but as is the case most often, there is no language that addresses this.


Take for instance Maryland; some school boards elect representatives from existing state legislative districts. There is no provision explaining what to do when an incumbent school board member is dislocated from the district they were elected/nominated from due to redistricting of the state map. Must a new election or nominating process be immediately organized to replace him/her or do they serve out the remaining term? The state attorney general’s office opinion on the matter served as authority in this case. Other states face the same issue.

The answer to this question when it comes to determining who one’s representative is simple; your existing representative represents you even if your address belongs to a new district after redistricting – up until the first election under those new districts. When governments enact new districts, no one is elected yet represent those districts. This is the same advice that the Chicago Corporation Counsel gave the aldermen.

What is unclear is whether those ‘other’ activities the aldermen engage in can proceed in a way that makes the new districts effective immediately. In other words if an incumbent elected to ward 1 can dole out money to residents in what is currently ward 2 but will be in ward 1 after the 2015 election? Confused yet? Chicago lawyers answered this question in the affirmative. Thanks to the lawsuit, we may get an opinion that matters more; a federal court.

Categories: Gerrymanders, Lawsuits, Process, Redistricting

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