The state Senate's first redistricting hearing was held today in Chicago, giving the city's immigrant, ethnic, and minority communities a chance to demand fair representation during the process.
Representatives from a range of minority, immigrant, and ethic communities are marshaling the latest census data and legal arguments, drawing up maps and charting shared neighborhood resources in an attempt to influence the outcome of the decennial legislative redistricting process.
In Chicago this afternoon, a redistricting committee chaired by State Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago) took several hours of testimony from various individuals and organizations. The meeting was one of four that the Illinois Voting Rights Act, signed into law by Gov. Quinn earlier this year, requires; a fifth meeting has since been added.
One of the common themes shared among many who spoke today was that dividing a community's voters over multiple districts diminishes their power and makes elected officials less accountable. Organizers are using the language of the Illinois Voting Rights Act, which says the new political map "shall be drawn to create crossover districts, coalition districts, or influence districts," to argue their case.
Front and center at the hearing were Chinese-American and Asian-American leaders, who are pushing state lawmakers to recognize the growth of their communities with more consolidated districts.
"Contributing to the problem of Asian-Americans not having the full and fair opportunity to elect candidates of their choice, redistricting in Illinois has fragmented out neighborhoods repeatedly," said Ami Gandhi, counsel for the Asian American Institute.
After the 2000 census, five Illinois Senate districts were over 10 percent Asian American, but the lines created by that remap created just two Senate districts that had that ratio of Asian-Americans, she said.
Gandi identified Greater West Ridge, on Chicago's Northwest Side and adjacent portions of the northern suburbs, as a region where Asian immigrants from many different countries share challenges and institutions, and thus should be considered together during the remap.
The Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community (CBCAC) released a map today of what they are calling the "Greater Chinatown Community Area," stretching from the Loop to Brighton Park, outlined in red on the following map:
This part of Chicago has seen a 55 percent increase in Asians over 10 years, to more than 31,000 in all. The above map, however, only shows that growth; CBCAC's policy consultant, Theresa Mah, said the organization will submit a map showing a state house district they would like see created in the future.
Other communities are arguing for consolidated districts as well. Here's a clip from testimony given by Michael Rodriguez, the executive director of the multi-issue non-profit Enlace Chicago, talking about legislative fragmentation in Little Village, on Chicago's Southwest Side. Watch:
Lawrence Hill, an attorney who is leading a group called the African Americans for Legislative Redistricting, said this year's state Voting Rights Act would help racial minorities if properly implemented. "Our coalition views the Illinois Voting Rights Act as a protection of gratuitously cracking the black vote. 'Cracking' is of course the dilution of the vote by spreading the black population into multiple districts, in which it cannot control the outcome of an election," he said.
Hill also said it was important for constituents to keep relationships with existing legislators, telling the committee that "we don't expect substantial changes in the current map as it relates to African-American districts unless there's a compelling reason for change."
Another priority for the black community is changing state law so prison inmates are counted in their home address during the census, rather than in the downstate facilities where they reside during incarceration terms, Hill said.
In an interview with Progress Illinois, Josina Morita, from the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations, said minority groups need to avoid a zero-sum game when it comes to the redistricting process. "We've drawn a map to preserve existing African-American statehouse districts as well as increase the number of Latino districts," she said; those maps are not public yet. Morita said three black congressional districts can be kept in Chicagoland as well as two Latino districts, including one that would "grow" as a Latino district as young people come of age.
With the Illinois Voting Rights Act of 2011 adding a new legal requirement to this year's remap, Raoul acknowledged it would be difficult to account for the multiplicity of interests and groups seeking recognition in the process. "It's going to be challenging for us to deal with this," he said.
Different people, Raoul told the crowd, have different definitions of communities of interest.
Another challenge is when the actual maps will be shown. Raoul was also pressed by speakers today -- as well as the committee's GOP members -- to release the maps legislators have under consideration for public comment and view.
Nonetheless, Raoul defend his committee's work and the process that SB 3976 has established. Here's a clip from today's gathering:
Raoul's committee with convene again in Springfield on April 6.