The Color of Representation: Local Government in Illinois

The Color of Representation is the first comprehensive report on the representation of people of color in Illinois at the level of cities, counties, and school boards. Local governments affect the practices of the police, the distribution of public resources, and the way that the schools educate the next generation of leaders. The report identifies 38 places with elected officials that don't reflect the racial diversity of the community. Read coverage of the report in the Chicago Tribune.


Lack of Diversity in Local Government Can have Devastating Consequences

When elected officials are not as diverse as the community they serve, the voices and interests of people of color are not adequately considered when decisions are made. National attention was brought to this problem in Ferguson, Missouri, where the mayor, police chief, municipal judge, majority of the police force, and 5 of 6 city council members were all white, despite Ferguson’s population being 67% Black. Such a severe underrepresentation of Ferguson’s Black community contributed to racially discriminatory policing practices, investigated in the wake of the killing of unarmed Black teen Michael Brown in August 2014.

Local governments are often understudied, but can have a huge impact on the daily lives of their citizens, especially communities of color. For example, their decisions can affect whether:

  • A community is integrated
  • Public resources are equally distributed throughout the city
  • Public employees include people of color
  • Schools disproportionately suspend and expel Black students
  • Minority owned businesses can thrive
  • People of color’s right to vote is burdened

Where are people of color underrepresented?

The authors examined hundreds of county boards, city, town, and village councils, and school boards. The following are some of the places where people of color are most underrepresented:

The following are counties, cities/towns/villages, or school board areas where the minority population is big enough to elect at least one additional member to the relevant board or council. 13 of the 38 jurisdictions could potentially be sued under the federal Voting Rights Act (Section 2).

Remedying Minority Vote Dilution has Traditionally Meant Creating Majority-Minority Single Member Districts

Creating single member districts requires a community of color to be geographically compact, that is, segregated. However, many American communities are desegregating. 20 out of the 38 jurisdictions analyzed in this report are too integrated to draw SMDs. For example, while Chicago still exhibits a high level of residential segregation, DuPage County is much more integrated:

Fair Representation Voting Systems Are A Better Way to Remedy Minority Vote Dilution

Unlike SMDs, cumulative and ranked choice voting allow communities of color that are desegregated to elect candidates of their choice. In cumulative and ranked choice voting systems, representatives are elected at-large from the whole city, or from large multi-member districts, in a way that ensures that candidates are elected in proportion to their support from the population. 

Advocates Take Action at the Local, State, and National Level to Improve Minority Representation

Local Recommendation: Communities Should Implement Fair Representation Systems Through Community Action

Though some jurisdictions could change to single member districts to improve minority representation, fair representation systems like cumulative and ranked choice voting will help to ensure that any growth (or reduction) in the minority population can be reflected in increased (or decreased) minority representation. Local communities in home rule jurisdictions (those that can change their system of election through ballot initiative) can build local power to introduce a fair representation system. This can be done by persuading local representatives, or gathering signatures to put a proposition on the ballot requiring the change to a new election system.

State Recommendation: States Should Adopt Voting Rights Acts That Make It Easier For Communities to Litigate to End Minority Vote Dilution, and Implement Fair Representation Systems as Remedies

States should introduce state Voting Rights Acts like that currently used in California which is a more robust version of the federal Voting Rights Act. The state VRAs should explicitly state that minority vote dilution may be remedied by fair representation systems. This will make it easier, and cheaper, for minority communities to assert their rights through litigation.

National Recommendation: Programs Should Target Improving Minority Civic Engagement and Candidate Recruitment

Programs should be developed (at the local, state, or national level) to help register eligible citizens to vote, to improve turnout in local elections, to improve other measures of civic participation, and to 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.