A first-of-its-kind report in Illinois has uncovered widespread underrepresentation of communities of color in local government jurisdictions, including 13 that could potentially face litigation under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The report released today provides a detailed look at which counties, municipalities and school districts under represent minority citizens, and the potential consequences when governing bodies are not nearly as diverse as the populations they serve. The study goes on to recommend election system remedies better suited for Illinois’ increasingly diverse communities.
“This study makes it clear as day that voting rights need to be protected in northern as well as southern states and that minority underrepresentation is a contemporary problem that needs contemporary solutions,”said Jay Readey, Executive Director of Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Inc., which co-authored the report.
“Selma may have been 50 years ago, but people of color are still not equitably represented in local government and the solutions we currently use to address underrepresentation are no longer suitable,” Readey said.
The report found that the vast majority (85%) of the 237 Illinois municipalities, county governments and school districts studied under represent people of color in relation to their percentage of population. And 38 jurisdictions have what the report termed “severe underrepresentation,” with a sufficiently large minority population that, if voting cohesively and using an appropriate election system, could elect at least one additional candidate of its choice.
Joining the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee in developing the report were the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Chicago. The report was funded by the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, which invests in policy solutions to economic and social challenges that affect quality of life, community vitality and social equity.
The report studied demographics of communities and representative bodies for counties, cities and school boards with significant minority populations. A full list of the jurisdictions examined can be found at www.colorofrepresentation.org.
"This report sheds light on a serious problem in Illinois and offers solutions to strengthen our communities' representation,” said Jorge Sanchez, Senior Litigator with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “Underrepresentation in local government can significantly affect decisions on matters such as how public resources are distributed and how many people of color are hired as public employees. These decisions have a direct impact on citizens’ lives, affecting everything from public education funding patterns to criminal justice to housing policy.”
“We are especially pleased at the modern perspective this report takes to voting rights that moves beyond drawing districts and instead explores innovative solutions that wastes less votes and allows smaller communities to have their voice heard in a fair system of representation,” said Kathleen Yang-Clayton, Director of Policy and Programs for Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Chicago.
To address underrepresentation, local governments can adopt election systems better suited for racially diverse communities. Two solutions addressed in the report, cumulative voting and ranked choice voting, can help ensure that minority voting strength is not diluted by electing candidates in proportion to their support from the community. Conversely, in an at-large, winner-take-all voting system, 51 percent of the voters control 100 percent of the representation.
The traditional remedy for underrepresentation has been creation of single-member districts where a majority of voters are people of color – commonly called “majority minority” districts. But that tactic may not work in jurisdictions where minority populations are spread throughout a community rather than concentrated entirely in certain neighborhoods. In fact, 22 of the 38 jurisdictions found to severely under represent minorities are too integrated to draw a majority-minority district. Cumulative voting or ranked choice voting would be a solution for these jurisdictions to protect and promote minority voting rights.
The report provides advocates and policymakers in Illinois with multiple options for addressing this issue:
• Local level: Home rule jurisdictions can adopt more equitable election systems, such as cumulative voting or ranked choice voting, through referenda placed on the ballot by a unit of government or through a citizen-led petition drive.
• State level: The state could adopt a Voting Rights Act, such as one recently enacted in California, requiring fairer representation of communities of color. A state Voting Rights Act would provide additional protections for minority voters and enable minority groups to more easily sue jurisdictions such as some of those highlighted in the new Illinois report.
• Nationwide: Government and non-government actors could run programs or initiatives to increase local voter turnout and recruit and train people of color to run for local office. Without comparable turnout by people of color to that of white voters, and without minority candidates on the ballot, no election system can ensure that people of color are fairly represented.
“A strong democracy includes political leaders who reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. This is critical in ensuring that all voices are heard in government,”said George Cheung, Senior Program Officer at the Joyce Foundation. “We urge policy makers at all levels of government to hear this message and act to lift every voice.”
The organizations that developed the report will soon begin convening advocates across the state to discuss the findings and their implications, and also provide opportunities for raising public awareness and engaging citizen action.