by Meganne Trela (Spring 2018)

After the 2010 Census, the City of Chicago Heights drafted a new voting map to match the change in the City’s population. The Seventh Circuit eventually addressed the constitutionality of those aldermanic districts in McCoy v. Chicago Heights Election Commission, 880 F.3d 411 (7th Cir. 2018). The City met its burden under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution to provide legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for reapportioning its voting district map despite an overall population deviation of more than 10 percent.

Prior to the most recent lawsuit, the City was involved in a lawsuit regarding the aldermanic districts, which resulted in a Consent Decree. The original lawsuit, which dated back to 1987, alleged that the City and the Chicago Heights Park District diluted voting opportunity and challenged the manner in which representatives were elected to the City Council. Based on the finding that the City violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a 2010 Consent Decree was entered by the federal court in the Northern District of Illinois. The Decree established a seven‐ward, single aldermanic form of government with a ward map that met applicable constitutional requirements. However, the Decree also contained a provision requiring the City to reapportion the wards as the population fluctuated.

The 2010 Census showed that the population in the City had changed and, therefore, required that the City re-apportion the voting districts accordingly. By motion, the City submitted a revised map to the federal district court with the seven voting districts each having less than a 10% population deviation. That means each district’s population was within 10% of the ideal where all districts are of equal size. However, the overall population deviation was 12.65%, meaning the difference between the smallest and largest districts was too large. Because a population deviation of more than 10% requires the government to provide justifications for the variance under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the district court denied the City’s motion, but allowed the City to submit a justification for the variance in its proposed map.

The City justified the variance by stating that it was attempting to maintain the historical and natural boundary lines where possible to avoid voter confusion. The City theorized that unusual boundary lines would create undue confusion among voters. After holding an evidentiary hearing, the district court approved the City’s proposed map as constitutional.

On review, the Seventh Circuit reasoned that the principle of “one person, one vote” found in the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution requires that government officials are elected from voting districts with substantially equal populations. While exact precision is not required, government bodies are required to make an honest and good faith effort to make voting districts with populations that are as equal as possible.

Corporation counsel for the City was primarily responsible for re-drawing the voting districts along with a cartographer. The City’s corporate counsel testified at the hearing that his focus in creating the map was to make as little change as possible to the wards to avoid voter confusion. He also testified that he used major thoroughfares as the natural dividing lines between wards. Challengers to the City’s map argued that they developed a map that was more equally apportioned.

In addressing the challenger’s argument, the Seventh Circuit found that the Decree only contemplated the submission of the City’s draft voting map and did not require the district court to review maps submitted by the challengers. Thus, the court was only required to review whether the map presented by the City was constitutionally adequate.

The Seventh Circuit in this case found that the justifications were legitimate and non-discriminatory. The court reasoned that maintaining historical boundaries and utilizing major thoroughfares as natural dividing lines was constitutionally acceptable. Further, the court found that challengers to the City’s submission failed to present any evidence of discriminatory intent. Therefore, the deviation, although greater than the deviation typically allowed by courts, was constitutional and satisfied the principle of one person, one vote.

Communities must be careful to maintain voting districts that pass constitutional muster. Local governments must be able to provide legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for voting districts that surpass a 10% population deviation. For questions regarding voting districts, contact an attorney at Ottosen Britz.