A local voting rights advocacy group has filed a federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice over the state’s recent redistricting effort, which the group says negatively affects Black voters, particularly those on the West Side. 

The Illinois African Americans for Equitable Redistricting (IAAFER) filed the complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) on Oct. 18, alleging that the Illinois General Assembly reduced the number of majority-Black state legislative districts in a way that violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

Although the number of Black Illinois residents has declined since 2010, representatives with the group said the population decline doesn’t justify halving the number of majority-Black districts in the state. 

Valerie Leonard, the co-founder of the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council and who serves as the convener for the group, said that the new legislative map, which was approved Aug. 30, reduces the voting power of Black, lower-income West Siders in favor of more well-off white voters. 

For now, the group is waiting for the DOJ’s response, but Leonard said that they are prepared to sue the state if the federal department declines to pursue the complaint.

The boundaries of all legislative districts must be changed once every 10 years based on the census results, to ensure that each district has similar population numbers. Each state Senate district contains two state House districts.

Under the Illinois constitution, the General Assembly had until June 30 to complete the remap. Due to the fact that the 2020 Census data didn’t arrive until August, the state adopted provisional maps based on American Community Survey data. Once the data came out, it approved a revised map Aug. 30.

IAAFER already had concerns about the earlier map reducing African-American voting power. They argued that the new map reduced the number of majority-Black state representative districts from 16 to eight and reduced the number of majority-Black state Senate districts from eight to four. 

Leonard said that, on the West Side, the group took issue with the 9th and 10th state House districts, which are part of the 5th state Senate district. The two House districts have encompassed most of majority-Black portions of the West Side. 

Under the 2011 map, the 9th District included most of North Lawndale. The 10th District includes East Garfield Park and West Garfield Park, along with a slither of Austin. 

According to the new map, the new 10th District retains East Garfield Park and West Garfield Park, and includes a slightly larger portion of Austin, but it also includes portions of majority-white communities like Lincoln Park, Wicker Park and West Town. The change to the 9th District follows a similar pattern, adding more census tracts from the majority-white areas.

Leonard argued that the change hurts Black voters in several ways. Black candidates running for elected offices would have a more diverse electorate to appeal to, which would make elections more expensive.

“It doesn’t cost as much to create a message in a homogenous community as it would in a more diverse community,” she said. “The more diverse the community, the more interests you have to serve.”

Leonard also argued that the setup would advantage non-Black candidates, noting that the districts include parts of some of the wealthiest communities in the state.

“You’ll eventually have people from some of the poorest communities in the state that happen to be Black competing with more affluent communities on the east side of the district,” she said. “Those races are probably going to be more expensive to win. We’d be competing with big money.”

Legislators have argued that just because there are fewer majority-Black districts doesn’t mean Black candidates can’t win elections. And there is already precedent. Most of state Rep. Camille Lilly’s 78th District, which largely spans the west suburbs, isn’t majority-Black, and neither is about two-thirds of State Rep. La Shawn Ford’s 8th District.  But Leonard said that those are the exceptions; they won’t be the rule under the new map. 

“In many cases Blacks are winning because races are crowded,” she said. “If you have a one-on-one race between a Black person and a white person, the race may become a bit more challenging.” 

Ford has had his seat since 2006 and hasn’t had any serious opposition since 2008. Lilly was appointed to her seat in 2010 and has not faced any serious competition since then. 

Leonard said that, while IAAFER is hopeful that the DOJ will investigate their complaint, if it doesn’t, they are prepared to take legal action against the state government. 

“We would need to find an attorney who’d represent our interests,” she said. “We would have the attorney look and see if there’s a case, and have them file a lawsuit on our behalf — on behalf of the Black voters in Illinois.” 

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...