Commentary: Common Cause calls for independent commission for redistricting

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On Nov. 1, the Delaware Senate and House of Representatives both approved their proposed district maps, as part of the decennial redistricting process. The maps will be sent to Gov. John Carney, who is expected to sign them into law, and they will be effective for the next 10 years.

After advocating for a fair, transparent and participatory process, Common Cause Delaware (CCDE) is now calling for the state to move to an independent redistricting commission model.

Since the beginning of the year, CCDE has worked with a number of allied groups as part of the Delaware Fair Maps Coalition to ensure that the redistricting process would be fair, transparent and participatory, and that new districts would be drawn around “communities of interest” rather than the interests of politicians.

The process this year had both strengths and weaknesses. On the positive side, this year’s redistricting cycle ended the harmful practice of prison gerrymandering. For the first time in Delaware, people in prison were counted at their permanent home addresses rather than the prison where they are temporarily housed.

CCDE applauds the General Assembly for including “communities of interest” among the essential criteria for redistricting and would like that to be added to Senate Bill 27 (currently tabled), which seeks to update the redistricting process as articulated in the Delaware Constitution. We also thank General Assembly leaders for responding to public requests and creating an informational website, where they posted draft maps for public review and received written testimony, and for convening three public hearings to allow public comment.

Despite these efforts, however, this year’s process was less participatory than it could have been. The posted maps were difficult for the average resident to download and understand, and the public hearings were announced with very short notice. Moreover, the entire redistricting process was unnecessarily rushed because leadership insisted on ending the process by Nov. 8, even though they could have extended the timeline. Allowing people only three to five business days to digest the implications of the legislator-drawn maps was simply not enough time and that contributed to low participation. Finally, the three hearings allowed only two to three minutes of discrete comments from community members, which did not enable a real conversation about the implications of proposed maps for voters.

At the end of the day, while we commend the legislature for considering community-drawn maps, it seems that protecting incumbents — also referred to as “preserving the cores of prior districts” — ended up playing too great a role in the process. Considering the addresses of incumbents in the process appears to contradict the mandate in the Delaware Constitution that prohibits maps from being drawn to “unduly favor any person or political party.” Delaware is one of the few states that includes such a prohibition in its governing document, and it should have been a bright line in the process.

Now, with the process completed, CCDE asks that state leaders turn their attention to codifying this year’s successes and taking steps to remedy its shortcomings by moving to an independent redistricting commission model. An independent redistricting commission would transfer the power of drawing district lines from elected officials to the people. The process would minimize partisan interests and instead focus on the best interests of the people of Delaware. To ensure the process is fair and inclusive of every voice in our state, the commission would be required to follow a set of criteria — including a certain number of public hearings — as well as mandate avenues for public input and ensure accessibility for limited English proficiency (LEP) and disabled Delawareans.

We would like to see the introduction of a bill that would establish an independent redistricting commission, perhaps like the one sponsored by Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, back in 2017, which passed the Senate with bipartisan support.

We look forward to working with any member of the legislature interested in ensuring that the future of redistricting is as fair, transparent and inclusive as possible.

Claire Snyder-Hall is the executive director of Common Cause Delaware.

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