DOVER — Tweaks to the General Assembly’s new House of Representatives and Senate districts, as recommended by the Department of Elections, passed the House on Thursday.
Gov. John Carney approved the proposed districts in November, but House Bill 335 is verifying subsequent border changes made by the Department of Elections. The legislation states that those changes would minimize the need for new election districts and increase the efficiency of elections.
HB 335 passed with 39 yes votes and two abstentions.
Rep. Mike Ramone, R-Newark, was one who abstained, voicing concern about changed language in the bill. According to one of the last lines of the legislation, “two true and correct copies of these maps shall also be filed within 10 business days of becoming final,” which was changed from “not later than January 1, 2022.”
“When we had a date certain of Jan. 1, we had it in a bill that was the law, and the counties still didn’t get it done until the middle of March,” he said. “My point is, there should be a motivation that (the maps get finalized) earlier. Granted, this year we had COVID, the census came late, so I understand making a modification for this year. But I feel adamantly that there’s a date certain that this needs to be done by.”
Common Cause Delaware also released a statement Thursday, raising “serious questions” about HB 335, since leadership said the redistricting maps must be settled by Nov. 8, 2021, in order for candidates to comply with the one-year residency rule.
Claire Snyder-Hall, executive director of Common Cause Delaware, said that, while the General Assembly website indicates the bill is a mechanical fix to ensure that election districts are correct, advocates continue to question the lack of transparency surrounding it.
“Why are these changes being made four months after that deadline?” she said. “Delaware residents and activists showed up in force last year to advocate for fair and representative maps, but the public wasn’t notified that changes were needed or happening. Delawareans deserve a government that is accountable to all of us. That means complete transparency and a meaningful opportunity to weigh in on policy changes that affect our lives.”
But ultimately, the bill’s passage at a later date will not affect residents’ ability to vote, said House Speaker Rep. Pete Schwarzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach. He said it was impossible to finalize and produce the maps by Jan. 1 this year, which is the reason for the change of the required filing date for new maps. Additionally, the counties, cities, House and Senate were all redrawing their lines differently, so there were discrepancies with the process that needed to be fixed.
Rep. Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, said the bill was an agreement with the Department of Elections, the House, the Senate and their attorneys, adding that lawmakers are changing the language in the bill so they do not have to update the filing deadline every decade.
Rep. Ramone noted, “Frankly, we’re all incumbents, so the longer we wait, the better for us because nobody knows where the heck they are, so I don’t think it’s fair. The counties should be held accountable to produce what they need to produce so that we can follow the law. I think giving it 10 days gives the counties even more flexibility to say they don’t have time or (to) drag their feet.”
Rep. Schwarzkopf said that, in eight years when the redistricting process begins again, the legislature can change the date back, if needed.
Joe Fulgham, spokesman for the Delaware House of Representatives Republican Caucus, said this is basically a housekeeping bill done in conjunction with every redistricting.
"The problem is that is when you redraw both the House and the Senate lines, they overlap. The Senate and House are done separately,” said Mr. Fulgham. “You basically give that to the Department of Elections, and they spend a couple months crunching numbers and looking at lines. They’ve got to set up election districts within those newly drawn 62 legislative districts. But they want to do it in such a way that’s the most efficient way possible, operating within the framework that the General Assembly gave them. They make very minor tweaks to the redistricting maps, but nothing substantial.”
Milford Republican Rep. Bryan Shupe, who also abstained from the vote, noted that the maps for the Senate are as yet inaccessible online. He suggested delaying the vote for HB 335 to allow people to see the lines. But Rep. Schwartzkopf said that, since the House districts are accessible, viewable and printable, then a vote would be called in the House.
“Rep. Shupe, you bring up a valid issue. It’s just not a valid issue for us,” he said. “It is on the Senate side. They have to pass this and then should not pass it until they fix that. But that’s on them.”
The bill has now been assigned to the Senate’s Executive Committee.