McHenry County Board soon will redistrict for new, smaller board without new census numbers

The redrawing of district lines is moving forward at the federal, state and local level without the results of the 2020 U.S. census, which were delayed until September

The McHenry County Board will not be able to use up-to-date data from the 2020 census as it begins the process of redrawing the lines of the county’s districts – a decennial democratic process that is especially important this year as the County Board prepares to move to 18 members from 24.

The results of the 2020 U.S. census have been delayed, in large part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning the redistricting process, a once-a-decade opportunity to ensure residents are well represented at the national, state and local level will rely on 2010 census data and more recent population estimates.

Full and finalized data from the 2020 census now will be released sometime in September, but the county’s deadline to submit their redistricting proposal to the state is set for July, said McHenry County Board member Joseph Gottemoller, who has led the process locally.

This means County Board Chairman Mike Buehler, R-Crystal Lake, will need to present the redistricting proposal he selects for discussion in May, hold a subsequent public hearing to hear the concerns of residents, and then the County Board will vote to approve the proposal in its June or July meeting, he said.

“Every county in the state is facing the same dilemma,” Gottemoller, R-Crystal Lake, said in an interview last month. “In the end really what’s happened is, nobody ever thought the census numbers wouldn’t be here.”

In McHenry County, this process comes as the County Board figures out how to handle the 2018 decision to reduce its size to 18 members, including how many districts the county will be divided into and how many County Board members will represent each district, Gottemoller said.

The McHenry County Board currently is comprised of 24 members, divided among six districts. Members’ terms are staggered, meaning two member seats from each district are up for election every two years.

In the next election, all County Board seats will be up for election to start fresh with a newly configured board.

Gottemoller, who has spent a considerable amount of time drawing up potential redistricting maps, said he prepared proposals that would break the county into six districts of three members, nine districts of two or 18 districts of one.

County Board member Kelli Wegener, D-Crystal Lake, said she thinks nine districts of two members would be the best way to split the new board as it would allow them to continue the practice of staggering terms.

This piece of the process will be discussed in a committee meeting Wednesday morning and then by the full board later this month ahead of a vote on May 18, Gottemoller said. Once this is settled, the focus will turn to the work of approving district maps.

Drawing maps strong enough to withstand challenges without the 2020 census numbers has been difficult, Gottemoller said last month.

The more recent 2018 estimates available through the American Community Survey, a demographics survey program conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, do not offer as comprehensive of a view into what the county looks like today and the 2010 numbers are significantly outdated, he said.

The U.S. Voting Rights Act allows for a maximum of a 10% difference between the population size of the smallest district and the largest district, so Gottemoller said he is trying to draw maps that would fit within this window even if the numbers he has been working with are off.

Even in typical redistricting years, political science professor at University of Illinois Chicago Dick Simpson said the census count is not 100% accurate, especially when it comes to minority populations and undocumented immigrants who may be reluctant to give information to a government agency for fear of deportation.

“There are sort of three constitutional standards” for redistricting, Simpson said. Maps have to be “compact (and) contiguous” – not “be like a long, skinny line or jump between the east side of the county and the west side of the county” – they can’t discriminate against minorities, racial and ethnic as well as political.

The stakes to get this right are high, Simpson said.

“If, let’s say, town A doesn’t get fair representation on the County Board, they probably won’t get fair services and will get higher taxes,” he said. “That’s the consequence of electing a biased group of people - whatever that bias is whether it’s partisan, racial - and continuing incumbents forever in office.”

Underrepresented voters have less of a say in who they elected to represent them and, in turn, their representatives have less of a pull to care about their needs, Simpson said.

McHenry County Board member Michael Vijuk, a Democrat who sits on the committee first considering the maps, has also drawn up a few maps of his own to give board members “an alternative view” to consider, he said.

Wegener said she thinks his are more equitable to local Democratic voters, but said that politicians from either side of the aisle should not be the primary ones drawing maps.

“I think that we should have an independent contractor doing this,” Wegener said. “Somebody that everybody agrees on that is voted on because I think it should be non-partisan and I think it should be fair.”

Buehler enlisted the help of a recently retired state legislator, Mike Fortner, who gave a presentation at an April board meeting but has not been closely involved in the work of Gottemoller or Vijuk, Buehler said.

“This person is a very conservative legislator, and I just don’t think that’s bipartisan either,” Wegener said.

Buehler said Monday that he had met with Fortner to discuss redistricting earlier that morning and that Fortner would bring forward some rough drafts of maps to give Buehler various ideas on how the county could be divided depending on the number of districts decided upon.

He will weigh these ideas alongside Gottemoller’s maps and any other maps presented to him, in making his final decision on what he will propose, Buehler said, adding that Vijuk had not brought any suggestions to him as of Monday.

Vijuk said he has not brought his maps before the chairman because he has not been asked to do so and has been waiting to present them in Wednesday’s committee meeting.

The Illinois General Assembly also decided to plunge ahead with redrawing state legislative districts despite the delay of the census numbers, and the Democratically controlled body has also fielded calls from legislators and local politicians who say an outside expert should be leading the often-politicized process.

In McHenry County, where the political majority leans the other way, Gottemoller said there simply are not independent consultants that specialize in redistricting available to assist in the effort.

Simpson stressed the need for an outside, independent commission to be the one drawing district maps, but also said that “almost none of that exists in Illinois in general and I doubt it exists in [McHenry County].” He highlighted Chicago’s redistricting commission, made up of 13 members chosen by local community groups, as one of few in-state examples of this way of doing things.

If the County Board’s Democratic members wanted to pull together some kind of independent commission to draw maps, Buehler said they should have come to him with suggestions earlier on in the process rather than being critical of how he has chosen to go about things this late in the game.

Wegener acknowledged the time crunch and said that she and many of her colleagues, Republican and Democratic alike, were hoping for a legislative fix at the state level.

While a few bills to set back the redistricting timeline, like Senate Bill 1666, were proposed in the Illinois General Assembly, none have made it out of committee, McHenry County Board Vice Chairwoman Carolyn Schofield said last month.

If redistricting deadlines were to be pushed back, the deadline for state and local candidates to pull petitions to get on the 2022 ballot, and potentially even the 2022 primary elections, would also need to be pushed back, Schofield said.

Once the redistricting proposal is approved by the full County Board, it will go to the state for review.

The census numbers likely will be released in the time that the state is reviewing counties’ proposals, meaning maps could be sent back to the counties for revision in light of any significant changes to population numbers, Gottemoller said.

Kelli Duncan

Kelli Duncan is a reporter for the Northwest Herald covering county government as well as the communities of Huntley, Lake in the Hills, Marengo and Harvard. She has previously covered local politics, immigration and feature stories.