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McLean County Redistricting Focuses On Rural, Urban Divide

The latest McLean County Board district map approved in 2011 has 10 districts with two board members each.
McLean County government
The latest McLean County Board district map approved in 2011 has 10 districts with two board members each.
Updated: May 5, 2021 at 4:14 PM CDT
This story has been updated from its original version with new information about a special meeting called by Democrats on the County Board.

McLean County government redraws its County Board districts every 10 years, after each census. Typically, county redistricting draws little attention. But this year's redistricting process has turned into a fierce political battle.

It has pitted Republicans against Democrats and rural residents against city dwellers.

How the new political maps are drawn could impact whether Republicans are able to hold on to a slim majority on the County Board over the next decade.

The County Board's Executive Committee has held three public hearings on redistricting. The discussion now is over whether the county should keep its current format of 10 districts and two board members in each district.

County Board member Elizabeth Johnston proposed the county move to a 20-district format. That would mean one board member for each district. Johnston argued residents would have better representation if their one County Board member had a smaller district.

“In Chenoa, their closest board member is 30 miles away. That’s almost the distance from my house to Morton,” Johnston said at a hearing on April 20. “We are a big county and I would like to see us make sure we have representation for each community in our county.”

“We are a big county and I would like to see us make sure we have representation for each community in our county.”
Elizabeth Johnston

That idea got lots of push back from rural residents.

“I get to vote for one of you every two years as opposed to every four years,” John Walther of Bloomington said at a May 3 hearing.

But the rhetoric was fierce in the other direction, too. Some rejected calls for fewer districts. For example, in a five-district format, each voter could elect 20% of the board.

“Regardless of intent, the impact of your plan is racist,” Adam Heenan of the Bloomington-Normal Trades and Labor Assembly told the committee on May 3.

The debate largely formed along political lines. More County Board districts could help Democrats by spreading out the urban and more Democratic-leaning population into more seats. Democrats say this also would help more minority candidates get elected. The county has one non-white board member out of 20.

Residents from rural and conservative-leaning areas argue more districts would make it easier for the board to reduce services outside of Bloomington-Normal where, they say, residents rely more on county services, including the sheriff's office for police protection and the highway department for road work.

Fewer County Board districts could help Republicans by making sure rural areas have more board members to represent them.

Currently, 30% of the County Board serves entirely rural areas. Residents outside Bloomington-Normal make up 23% of the county's population.

After hours of public hearings over two weeks, McLean County Assistant State's Attorney Christopher Spanos essentially took one of the proposals off the table. He told the committee the county can't move to a 20-member, 20-district format, without a public referendum.

“Make no mistake, a 20-member district plan passed by the McLean County Board would be unconstitutional,” Spanos said.

The debate over the number of County Board districts is far from over. Some have accused the County Board of not being transparent about how the districts will be formed.

Becky Hines is with the League of Women Voters of McLean County.

“While the League feels the opportunity for comment at the McLean County Executive Committee is a first step, from League observations, this current effort falls short of our expectation,” Hines told the committee iat the May 3 hearing.

John McIntyre
McLean County Board chair John McIntyre.

The League of Women Voters has called for the county to set clear criteria for redistricting, form a diverse, nonpartisan advisory committee to give input and give the public a change to weigh in on specific map proposals.

County Board Chair John McIntyre pushed back against claims the process has not been inclusive.

McIntyre noted more than 40 members of the public addressed the committee during three public hearings. He said the public also can bring its own specific proposals to the board.

"It’s transparent. They key word is we have opened this up and our rules as are established by our County Board make that very possible,” McIntyre said.

There is no formal map proposal yet.

That won't come until after the County Board approves the number of districts at its monthly meeting on May 13. The Executive Committee has then scheduled public hearings at 4:30 p.m. May 18 and 7 p.m. May 25.

If the County Board can't come to agreement on new districts or new maps, a committee would create the maps instead. That committee would include the state's attorney, county clerk, and representatives from the Illinois attorney general’s office and both political parties.

The state of Illinois requires counties must approve the maps by July 1.

Special meeting

The nine Democrats on McLean County Board have called for a special meeting next Tuesday to consider their request that the county keep its 10-district format.

Board member Laurie Wollrab said she prefers the status quo over creating fewer, larger districts.

“That format has worked well for us with keeping such a configuration. We have predictability in the way the board operates,” Wollrab said.

Wollrab said she believes Republicans on the board have already come up with a specific five-district plan of their own.

McIntyre declined to comment on the Democrats call for a special meeting, but denied Wollrab’s claim that a five-district format has already been conceived.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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