A case for redistricting DeKalb from scratch

DeKalb’s recipe for seven wards and seven aldermen is not written in stone, and it hasn’t always looked like this. For example, the city used to have at-large aldermen. We can change it again if we assemble the political will.

My aim here is to provoke thoughts about alternatives as DeKalb discusses redistricting work post-Census. The council does not have to accept the current proposal from city management, which perpetuates issues we have with participation and representation.

Argument 1: Voter Engagement

I would support trimming the number of wards. Three of our seven wards experience extremely low nonfederal election turnout, the factors a mixture of high student population, lowered overall population, and continued growth of voter apathy. (In this discussion I’m leaving out issues only the state can fix, such as schedules of local elections.) Here are the total ballots cast in the last local elections taking place in the low-turnout wards:

Ward One (2019): 219

Ward Six (2021): 156

Ward Seven (2019): 45

Mind you, while Ward Seven is the smallest ward currently, it has a population of more than 4,100 people. So we’re looking at 1% turnout, on its face an indictment of the way things are done.

Ballots cast in the other four wards in their last elections ranged from 467 to 914 votes. There are consequences attached to this contrast between lower-turnout wards versus higher-turnout wards. For example, would-be candidates of lower-turnouts will have to get 3-11 voter signatures on their nominating petitions at minimum, while minimums for higher-turnout wards will be 24-46 signatures.* In some wards, then, a would-be candidate could just about call their own household together to get the required signatures, while other candidates have to walk their wards, at least a little, to gather what they need. Why shouldn’t we expect all candidates to have to walk their wards?

An even more important difference between the lower-turnout wards and higher-turnout wards is that the lower-turnouts tend not to have contested races, but the higher-turnouts do — this is a long-term trend and 100% true of the last two city elections. If we want to increase contested races, there has to be some effort put into increasing engaged populations. Fewer wards mean higher populations in each and automatically help serve that goal.

Argument 2: Representation

Reducing the number of wards doesn’t necessarily have to mean eliminating representation. DeKalb could go to a smaller number of wards and add an alderman to each. That way, residents have more than one option for contact person, and voters have the opportunity to eliminate an alderman who is a bozo every two years, a step that can’t hurt morale and might improve it.

By the way, an even number of aldermen would also reverse the weaponizing of the mayoral vote in which the aldermen vote 4-3 to enact legislation and then the mayor votes no. Think about that: the mayor can kill a measure supported by the majority of aldermen. That is not supposed to happen, but in DeKalb it does. Bring back the role of mayor as tie-breaker only, with veto power to exercise where appropriate.

How to Do It

City management’s current proposal (shown below this post) we should regard as a starting point for debate. If we want to improve engagement and fix the voting issue, we should at the very least consider elimination of Ward Seven by absorbing it into surrounding wards.

However, since we’ve come this far, let’s look also at a more ambitious approach. Sycamore has four wards, and if you look at its map you can see the foundation of ward districting uses the state roads that run through the town; the result is easy identification of one’s ward, with the bonus of limited opportunity for gerrymandering. DeKalb likewise could start with Routes 38 and 23 and move these axes block by block to achieve the required, reasonably-close-to-equal-populations of the quadrants. With four wards, DeKalb could then go to two aldermen per ward as Sycamore does, or leave one alderman per ward and add at-large council members as other Illinois cities do (e.g., Champaign, Peoria).

For that matter, I have also found cities (Carbondale, Rochelle) where all council members are elected at large. With DeKalb as a significantly redlined city, I’d personally feel hesitant to eliminate ward aldermen, some of whom act as champions of neighborhoods that have experienced disinvestment — see Ward One as Exhibit A. Still, it’s something to put on the table at this early stage, to catalog both the potential benefits as well as disadvantages of systems that appear to work pretty well elsewhere.

A council committee to look at these questions would be a great development. No, I don’t expect this council will actually change anything. But it doesn’t mean we should continue to accept redistricting that doesn’t so much as nibble around the edges of the issues contributing to chronically poor citizen engagement and underperforming councils. I suggest we add examination of restructuring options to a mix of possible improvements and recruit candidates eager to adopt it to their platforms. By the end of the decade, we could be serving up a banger of a redistricting plan.

DeKalb’s current ward map:


Proposed new ward map for DeKalb:


Sycamore’s current ward map:


*A candidate should and typically does gather more than the minimum number of signatures as a cushion against any that might later be deemed illegitimate in some way; for example, if the signer is not a registered voter in the candidate’s ward.

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