Eye On Illinois: Parsing importance of Census means waiting for full details

The numbers don’t lie, but when people use numbers to advance an agenda, it’s worth considering the full context.

On Monday, U.S. Census officials announced Congressional reapportionment information, and Illinois will lose one Congressional district on account of a slight decline in population while other states added people. Only Michigan and West Virginia also have fewer residents than in 2010, but seven states are losing Congressional seats (the others are Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and California).

Illinois Republicans used the news as a chance to blast the Democrats who have largely controlled state government in the past decade, with strong legislative majorities and the governor’s mansion for all but four tumultuous years under Republican Bruce Rauner.

The counter-argument is the state has been hemorrhaging Congressional representation for a third of its existence. In 1949, Illinois had 26 Congressional districts, but the 1950 Census began a trend of consistent decline. The 1960 Census killed the 25th district, then the 1980 Census took out the 24th and 23rd. The 1990 Census cost us two more. After the 2000 Census, it was down to 19, and it’s been 18 since the 2010 Census.

Because the Reapportionment Act of 1929 capped the number of House seats at 435, even a stagnant state population is no guarantee of keeping representation. The national population has nearly tripled in the interim, which has a direct correlation on how many people each House district contains. After the 1790 Census, each Congressman represented about 34,436 people. Starting in 2023, each House member will have more than 760,000 constituents.

It’s difficult to imagine keeping that original ratio in place – the last thing our country needs is 100 senators and 9,615 representatives – but there’s something a little unsettling about Congressional districts with larger populations than at least three states (Alaska, Vermont and Wyoming are the smallest).

But taking Congress out of the picture entirely, it’s completely accurate to note Illinois is smaller than it was last decade. The 1990 Census showed almost no change, but every other tally since 1910 denoted an increase, from a 28% bump in 1980 to a 17.7% spike in 1930. Seeing that -0.1% drop in 2021 is undeniable.

As the legislative mapping process comes into sharper relief, Republicans looking to challenge Gov. JB Pritzker in 2022 sharpen their rhetorical knives. Rest assured, they all will tell voters their plans to reverse the trend and bring people back to Illinois. (Spoiler alert: their plans likely will involve cutting property taxes while improving public safety, although police budgets rely on municipal taxes.)

Macro data is interesting, but a full picture requires figures about which parts of Illinois grew and shrank. Those numbers will come — spin will follow.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Local News Network. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.