Evanston officials say they’ve seen smaller-than-expected turnouts at recent town hall meetings over the past few months, including a recent meeting where residents were invited to weigh in on the city’s next police chief.

Members of the city’s newly constituted Redistricting Committee are hoping to reverse that trend in a pair of meetings coming up seeking comment on the remapping of the city’s ward boundaries.

Nicholas Cummings, the city’s Corporation Counsel, reviews some of the criteria that could come into play in the city’s first large-scale ward remapping since 2003. Credit: Bob Seidenberg

The city is inviting residents to participate online in virtual town hall sessions tentatively planned for July 13 in English and July 20 in Spanish, from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

As with the police chief search, the remapping of the city’s ward boundaries is not an everyday thing – the last real remapping took place in 2003.

But the exercise promises to be a challenging one, with officials trying to balance population across Evanston’s nine wards with the city seeing a population increase of 3,624 residents, according to the 2020 Census.

Furthermore, citizen feedback could be key, with even small shifts in ward boundaries having the potential to affect long-term constituencies and their influence on City decisions.

Criteria for remapping

Currently, the wards are showing a 20.4% difference between the largest ward, the third, and smallest, the ninth, according to 2020 census figures.

“What we’re looking to do is balance the wards and get as close to even population across all nine wards,” said Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma, chairing the June 28 meeting.

Committee members are using as a starting point the criteria that officials cited in the 2003 ordinance establishing a new ward map at the time.

The list leads off with the Constitution’s 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause, enjoining a state from drawing distinctions between individuals on differences irrelevant to a legitimate governmental objective; and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting.

Other criteria included compactness, contiguity, natural geographic boundaries, minimization of voter confusion, communities of interest (residential property owners, municipal taxpayers, lakefront property owners, commercial business interests, student population), traditional Evanston neighborhoods and protection of incumbency.

“The Voting Rights Act gets into such concepts as racial demographics and ensuring adequate representation for minority groups,” said Corporation Counsel Nicholas Cummings, offering committee members a quick primer on the terms.

The wording “communities of interest’’ may be a little misleading, he told committee members, “because communities here doesn’t refer to neighborhoods, but refers to populations of similar interest or interest groups. So, residential property owners, municipal taxpayers, lakefront property owners, commercial business interests, the student population.”

“Protection of incumbents” could also be confusing, he said. The term, in this case, would suggest the new ward boundaries that neither “favor or disfavor an incumbent,” he explained.

Committee members also have the option of dropping that criteria altogether if they don’t believe it belongs, he said. Nieuwsma said it should probably remain.

“I think that incumbency is going to be on our minds and, in the spirit of transparency, should therefore appear on the list because it would be disingenuous to pretend we weren’t thinking” of it, he said.

Incumbency and racial balance

Council Member Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, asked about how to address the prohibition against creating race-based areas against another principle that talks about non-discrimination. Cummings referred back to the 14th Amendment and Voting Rights Act.

“It’s very generally stated, but to your point,” he said to Burns, “although race should not be a consideration, one of the things that the committee has to be careful of is actually shifting the racial balance of power.”

Currently, the city has three wards in which residents are mostly non-white: the second, fifth and eighth wards.

“At the end of the drawing, they should not be so significantly diluted,” Cummings said, “as to have eliminated that majority minority significantly.”

Residents’ input sought

The committee is expected to hear more on those issues at the planned town meetings and beyond. Community members are welcome to attend and provide public comment at Redistricting Committee meetings planned for the fourth Tuesday of each month.

More information about the committee’s schedule can be found in the meetings and agendas section of the city’s webpage, cityofevanston.org.

The committee’s timeline calls for the release of proposed maps in January. The group is aiming for City Council approval of a map in May of 2023.

The 2020 Census data showed a population deviation of more than 20%. Credit: City of Evanston image

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.