Cape Gazette

Statewide voter redistricting set to begin

By Ron MacArthur | Nov 11, 2010
It only happens once every decade, and that might be a good thing, because reapportionment has become such a contentious process that it ended up in court in 2001.

Based on data from the 2010 U.S. Census, state and county officials are poised to begin the arduous process of redrawing voting district lines.

Inevitable cries of gerrymandering can almost be expected as the process takes place. “There is no way to take politics out of this,” said Ed Ratledge, director of the University of Delaware’s Center for Applied Demographics and Survey Research.

With preliminary population counts already in, it appears eastern Sussex County voters will have a new state representative district in 2012. Kent County voters will also likely have a new district.

Exactly where the Sussex district will be and how it will affect existing district lines will be part of the reapportioning process set to begin in earnest in early 2011.

The state and county processes are separate, said Ratledge, speaking during a League of Women Voters of Sussex County seminar Monday, Nov. 8, in the county administration building. Other speakers included Hal Godwin, deputy county administrator; and John Flaherty, president of the Delaware Coalition for Open Government and former lobbyist for Common Cause.

Ratledge said the state process, to be decided by the majority Democratic caucuses, would start once official U.S. Census counts are released in February or March. Restricting must be completed by June 30, 2011. The county process of redrawing the five council district lines will also be in the works, but it can’t be completed until after state Democrats complete their process, Godwin said.

Godwin said like state election districts, one of the main forces driving councilmanic districts is population. All Sussex County councilmanic districts must have equal population, plus or minus 5 percent.

Ratledge said there have been major population changes in southern Delaware, and the number of people in state House and Senate districts continues to climb. Sussex councilmanic districts will contain about 40,000 residents each, which is an increase of about 5,000 to 7,000 residents since the last census.

In 2000, the average House district had just over 19,000 people; today that number is nearly 22,000. In 2000, the average Senate district had just over 37,000 people; it’s nearly 43,000 people this year.

He said in order to create new representative districts in Sussex and Kent counties, one or two districts will be removed from New Castle County.

Based on statewide population estimates, 17 existing representative districts have too few people, 12 districts have too many people and 12 districts are within tolerance, Ratledge said. In Senate districts, 10 are have too few people, nine have too many and two are within tolerance.

Ratledge said several factors are used in drawing new lines for districts including the number of registered voters, racial distribution, where incumbents live and voting information. He said several options are usually presented before a final map is agreed on.

Sussex County process

Godwin said in the past, county council has instructed its legal staff to hire a consultant to help with the process. Once maps are drawn, the information will be presented to county council during a public hearing. That should occur by the middle of 2011, Godwin said. Following public comment, the council is free to vote on the redistricting plan.

During the public comment period following the panel’s presentation, John Walsh of Rehoboth Beach said it would be a challenge for J. Everett Moore, the county’s attorney, to remain neutral in the process because he is the former county Republican chairman.
“I think it has the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Walsh said.

“It’s a political process. I think the challenge for him is to be even more aboveboard and fair because he is going to be examined a whole lot more,” Flaherty said.

Some members of the audience disagreed with Godwin when he said the existing councilmanic district lines were fair. “Three council seats abut the beach area and that was done on purpose so the beach has three votes,” Godwin said.

Joanne Cabry of Rehoboth Beach said she could not disagree more. Many residents on the eastern side of the county contend it’s western Sussex that had three votes.

“We have one representative who we can influence to vote. District 4 represents the coast – that’s the way the maps were drawn,” she said.

She said only small sections of District 3 and 5 actually include beach residents.

Sandy Spence, program chairwoman for the League of Women Voters for Sussex County, said the fact that the population has increased in each district could instigate debate about adding more council members. Godwin said although in theory council supports the idea of adding two at-large members, the cost is prohibitive. He estimated first-year costs could total as much as $300,000 with annual increases to the budget totaling $100,000.

Council President Vance Phillips, R-Laurel, said he would hope that districts remain as close as possible to their current structure. “And also demand that absolutely no political considerations be a part of the process,” he said.

Move to open the process

Flaherty said it took court action to get the General Assembly to complete the process in 2001. Attorney Christine Whitehead and Frank Sims, who was chairman of the Independent Party at the time, took the state to court and won.

Sims said a panel of three judges, from each court in the state, ordered legislators to have a plan ready in a week or they would draw district lines.

Even so, Flaherty said, districting at the state level is a secret process done behind closed doors without public involvement.

He urged support of Senate Bill 20, which will be renumbered in the new General Assembly session, that allows for an independent commission to redraw district lines.

“Not everyone will be satisfied, but the public has a right to be there,” he said. “Hopefully the General Assembly will open the process in 2011.”

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