Smile Politely

Democracy Now

The Champaign County Board is now considering the required re-apportioning of the Districts of their own Board, the Districts from which they were all elected.  This re-districting must occur every ten years, based on the US Census results.  All over the US, the re-districting process is giving politicians an opportunity to re-design the numbers to improve their side’s chances in future elections. So, re-apportioning is the “feeding-ground” for whichever political group has current control of the government.

Here and Now, the 27-member Champaign County Board has more Democrats than Republicans, so the Democrats should have been able to re-apportion the districts for their own benefit.  But, some of the Democrats broke ranks and, instead, convinced enough Board members to set up a non-partisan commission to create a “fair map.”  The Board also asked county voters to advise the Board if a different 22-member County Board would be okay with the voters (the voters said “sure”).
Keep in mind here, the current 27-member Board has only a few more Democrats (including the middle group of break-away Democrats) than Republicans.  The Board often has “close votes” and they are now considering a new Board with an EVEN number of members.  (By the by, there is no elected County Board Chair, so a tie vote would STOP GOVERNMENT.

The non-partisan Redistricting Commission was created and they debated and considered various alternative maps and finally could find only one that a majority of the non-partisans could recommend to the Board.  That’s the eleven-district, 22-member map that is now being considered for approval.  The Board has not yet voted in favor of a revised Board, from 27 to 22 members, but that’s the only map that’s on the table.

Sadly, I assume that most of those reading this did not know much about the County Re-Districting in process until they read it here.

    1. In 1970, after Illinois State Government passed a new State Constitution and the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the DEMOCRATIC concept of one man, one vote:

The Champaign County Board of Supervisors, consisting of fifty members elected from the thirty townships of the county was forced to vote itself out of existence.  The one-man, one vote concept mandated by a United States Supreme Court ruling was made a part of state law, and the result was a shift in power within county government from the less populated rural townships to the urban centers.  After considerable negotiation, County Board of Supervisors Chairman Wesley Schwengel was able to get approval to create a twenty-seven member County Board by forming nine geographical districts from which three members each were to be elected.  The plan was approved on December 1, 1970 and took effect in April, 1972.  A Commerorative History of Champaign County, Illinois: 1833-1983, at Page 314; Baker and Miller, published by the Illinois Heritage Association.

So, just forty years ago, this county was run by a Board comprised of 50 MEMBERS, most of whom represented their own local neighborhoods (townships).  It was radically unfair to the urban dwellers, but it was the government and the folks in the townships had their own representatives and it worked for them.  They knew who they voted for.

    2. From 1970 on, the Champaign County Democratic Party has slowly increased its numbers on the 27-member County Board as well as the number of Democrats elected as County officials (State’s Attorney, Auditor, etc.).  And, as noted above, the Democrats have recently turned the corner and the Board NOW has more Democrats than Republicans, although the Break-Away Democratic Board members have stolen control of the process away from the Democratic caucus.

    3. In the late 1990s, after many years of county-wide discussion about ways to improve county government (and/or change the Board), the League of Women Voters and the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce formed a ten-person Task Force to review these various options and write a report on their findings.  For reasons I still cannot understand, I was named as one of the five members from the Chamber, which I had just joined that year.  Perhaps it was because I volunteered.

Sam Gove was one of the League’s members of this Task Force.  He was the primary author/draftsman of the new Illinois State Constitution, passed in 1970 as noted above.  He was a magnificent man and it was a pleasure to meet him and learn from him, and the other Task Force members, during the several months that the Task Force met and worked.  Sam Gove died this Spring.

The Task Force Report rejected most suggestions for tinkering with the County Board.  The only recommendation that was approved by the Task Force was specific language for a county-wide referendum to change the County Board from a 27-member Board with ‘nine geographical districts from which three members each were to be elected,” to “twenty-seven districts from which one member each was to be elected.

This concept was called “Single Member Districts” and it parallels the original DEMOCRATIC concept of “one man, one vote.”  From the early years of the Democrats’ efforts to increase their number on the County Board, the Democrats had routinely endorsed and listed the change to “Single Member Districts” as part of their personal election literature and often as part of the Champaign County Democratic Party’s platform.  Most of the Board members on the Board in the late-nineties had previously endorsed this.  The language for the referendum, specifically recommended by the Task Force had been drafted by Laurel Prussing and other Democrats.  With the combined effort of many individuals, the necessary signatures were obtained
and the County Board was required to place the SMD Referendum on the ballot.

    4. But wait, there’s more.  As the Millennium 2000 approached, some Democrats were looking to their own, first-time re-apportionment opportunity.  Perhaps some of them had always cynically argued for Single Member Districts only because it might reduce the prior-majority Republicans’ ability to create Republican-dominated districts in 1980 and 1990.  But now it was 2000 and some of the Board Democrats were reviewing their situation.  They decided that the Single Member District Referendum should not pass after all.  Leading this infamous renege was Tom Betz, from District 8 in Urbana.  It may or may not have influenced his personal position that the other two members from District 8 all lived within a few blocks of Tom’s house on Oregon Street.

    5. The UIUC student population had become a major voting demographic in Champaign County after 1970 when the US Supreme Court also approved the Voting Rights Act which lowered the voting age to 18.  Thereafter, it was critical politically whether a vote was scheduled in the Spring local elections (when student voters are on Spring Break or otherwise “gone” or in the Fall elections (when the student voters are paying attention).  Historically, this Spring/Fall election choice was a regular tool and tactic in referendum votes during the last decades of the twentieth century.

    6. So the Renege Democrats started by voting to put the SMD Referendum on the ballot for the Spring election.  Then, they personally lobbied against the referendum, including outreaches to the farm district Republicans who were uncomfortable with any change in the county government and wanted to keep the status quo.  The SMD Referendum failed by a margin of almost two to one.  (As we used to say about the McGovern loss to Nixon in 1972: “Well, at least one-third of the people weren’t ignorant.”)


    1. The new map on the table for the County Board’s approval NOW can be reviewed at the website of the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission (RPC), and the same site indicates that each of the new eleven Districts has an average voting-age population number of about 18,000.  This map balances the districts primarily by carving larger pieces of the pie along the outskirts of the urban areas and by fairly-apportioning minorities, etc.  It’s fun to look at the RPC site.

    2. So, the voting-age population of Champaign County is represented approximately by a map of eleven districts at 18,000 per district; 11 x 18000 = 198,000.  If the Single Member District Referendum had passed, we would divide that number by 27; 198,000/27 = 7,333.  You can look at the RPC district maps and consider your own re-map by divvying up the seven urban 18,000 districts (126,000) and the four county 18,000 districts (72,000) into twenty-seven districts, EACH WITH THEIR OWN REPRESENTATIVE, not three as we have now, not two as this map and the current Board propose.  Oh yeah, don’t forget the even number of Board members problem.

    3. The County Board has not yet approved this map or even voted to change the size of the Board.  This is all maybe.

    4. Meanwhile, in Madison, Wisconsin, the people are filling the streets at the State Capital to protest their inability to control their government.  And in Michigan, the State Government has appointed an Emergency Financial Manager (EFM) to “close down” the local government of Benton Harbor as a “failed government,” thus allowing the EFM to sell the waterside park originally donated to “the people of Benton Harbor” to developers of a rich-person’s hotel, spa, and pleasure-park.  (They should call it Ozymandias.)

    5. Meanwhile, the people are having an Arab Spring in the Middle East, demanding their rights to participate in democratic government.  The results for them are both victories and bullets while the results for us are increased gas prices at the pump and harder times economically.


When the people of the United States demand DEMOCRACY NOW, they are hampered because they do not have any grasp of their own, local self-awareness and governance.  Here in our county, this is not just because of the machinations of the County Board and the Break-Away Democrats and the Renege Democrats.  It is because of the massive American infatuation with multiple layers of local government, which is especially obvious here in Illinois.

Somehow, Americans were convinced over the decades that every voter should have the right and the opportunity to participate in local government.  So some newly-intelligent locals got to be on city government and some other newbies got to be on county government, or the school board, or the park district, or one planning commission or another, or WHATEVER.  Nobody gave a damn about responsible and competent local government, because everybody got to play.

The end result is that each local community, which originally corresponded to the American ideal of “Fort Apache” and “Main Street” protection for their citizens against a hostile environment, now has such a multi-layered government that no definitions of goals and intents can be voted for and no real progress can be defined or maintained.  Instead, our local government(s), overloaded with stuffed shirts and ego-driven meddlers, have defaulted to planners and are at the mercy of developers and money-managers.

Now we face a new hostile environment and, like Libyans, we are seeking DEMOCRACY NOW.  Well, perhaps now or never. 


A Champaign County Board made up of 22 people from 11 districts, with 2 from each 18,000 voter district and with all districts designed to be equal politically and demographically?

Or a Champaign County Board made up of 27 people from 27 districts, with one person from each 7,000 voter district.  You know, from specific NEIGHBORHOODS.

The answer, unfortunately, is “who cares?”  Although it would be best for our local government to be responsible and competent and I would prefer to wake up each dawn and know who represents me in my community, from the ground in my front-yard and neighborhood to the White House, it’s not going to happen, because American voters are so ignorant.

So, as the Champaign County Board continues to stumble along, I can not resist writing this lesson and commentary and seeking a means to communicate it to my neighbors.

It continues to be true that education is the only possible way to pursue DEMOCRACY NOW.

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