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This fall brings much more than pumpkin spice and flannel — it is also redistricting season. Throughout Delaware, jurisdictions are engaging in the decennial process of redrawing district lines to reflect how local populations have changed.
Wilmington City Council conducted a marathon Redistricting Committee hearing Sept. 23, the second of several planned meetings for this purpose. The committee avoided a prison gerrymandering fiasco, wherein the city would have counted people incarcerated at Howard R. Young Correctional Institution as residents of its 3rd District, despite few of those incarcerated having any community ties to that district. State law dictates that the redistricting process appropriately count incarcerated people at their last known addresses, as was ultimately approved by the group.
Then, the members of council went on to say the quiet parts out loud as they discussed draft proposals.
While council members took great pains to explain all the conversations they had had with other council members, little mention was made of any conversations they had had with the communities their proposals would impact. Instead, members impersonally described each block segment they were adding or subtracting from current areas as “numbers” to reach the same amount of people in each district. What should be a community-centered process was diminished to a simple mathematical exercise that focused on incumbents’ needs rather than the people’s.
One of the most alarming examples of gerrymandering in Wilmington — the “5th District panhandle,” a half-mile-long section, one block wide, that inexplicably divides the 7th and 6th districts — was preserved in many drafts without justification. One member unironically lamented, “How can I represent a district I don’t live in?” about a proposal that would result in her not residing in the district she currently represents, seemingly without any understanding that redistricting should center communities and neighborhood ties, rather than incumbents’ election security.
Indeed, throughout much of the evening, members seemed to be solely focused on how redistricting will impact them personally without input or discussion from those communities they serve.
Wilmington isn’t the only place where political self-interest risks overtaking the public good. On Sept. 28, we turned our attention to Dover, as state legislators held their first public hearing on redistricting. Few details were provided about what information the General Assembly is considering as they design their initial draft maps, and few promises were made about how the General Assembly will show that it has appropriately weighed the proper criteria. That is why the American Civil Liberties Union Delaware submitted public comment at that hearing, outlining specific questions the General Assembly should answer, so that the public has the information necessary to understand this redistricting process and to provide meaningful input.
One improper criterion cited Sept. 28 was the interest in avoiding districts that would create contests between incumbents. This process, nicknamed “buddymandering,” is at odds with state law, which dictates that no district be “created so as to unduly favor any person,” including incumbents. Tellingly, only a handful of state legislators have pledged not to adopt any map that has been drawn for the purpose of including or excluding within any district the address of any individual.
But we have the ability to keep our elected officials accountable. ACLU Delaware has been working tirelessly with the League of Women Voters of Delaware, Common Cause Delaware, Network Delaware, the Delaware Coalition for Open Government and others to recruit civic leaders to help us analyze proposed maps once they are released and to collect “communities of interest” through a publicly sourced website, representable.org. Nearly 40 communities in Delaware have been collected.
It’s time our elected leaders elevate these communities in their redistricting deliberations. Voters should pick their politicians; politicians should not cherry-pick their voters.
Dwayne J. Bensing is a member of the legal staff of the American Civil Liberties Union Delaware and leads the Delaware Voting Rights Coalition.