Encyclopedia o f Chicago
Entries : Ward System
Ward System

Ward System

Population Density by Wards, 1904
Chicago has been divided into municipal legislative districts called wards since its first municipal charter in 1837, which created six wards. Except for the single alderman allotted to wards Three and Five until 1839, each ward elected two members of the Common Council. The number of wards increased repeatedly in the nineteenth century to accommodate growth in population and territory, eventually stabilizing at 35 wards after the major annexations of 1889. In 1923 the current system was adopted, with one alderman representing each of 50 wards. State law requires that ward boundaries be redrawn after each federal census to ensure roughly equal representation by population size. In the 1970s and 1980s there were five court-ordered partial redistrictings to redress the underrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities.

Chicago is unusual in having maintained its ward system while many cities were experimenting with at-large voting systems, smaller councils, and nonpartisan elections. Besides being a device of representative government, wards have organized residents' access to city services and, for an earlier generation, shaped the ward-and-precinct structure of political parties. In some cases, wards have developed localized cultural identities akin to those of neighborhoods.

Karlen, Harvey M. The Governments of Chicago. 1958.
Pierce, Bessie Louise. A History of Chicago. 3 vols. 1937–1957.
Sparling, Samuel Edwin. Municipal History and Present Organization of the City of Chicago. Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin, no. 23, May 1898.