Who do politicians represent? In a representative democracy, this isn’t a theoretical question.
Every 10 years, the General Assembly is tasked with determining the boundaries of the state House of Representatives and Senate districts. The idea is that as population shifts, so, too, should the districts. The core of this process, though, is ensuring that each community of interest has a voice in the General Assembly.
In layman’s terms, a community of interest is identified at the end of the sentence “I’m from ... ” It may be a neighborhood, community or group of people who share policy concerns and have their own story about what neighbors have in common and what makes their community unique when compared to surrounding areas.
Keeping communities of interest together is key to ensuring that their unique needs and perspectives are represented in the legislature. Dividing communities of interest may dilute their political power and make it more difficult to elect a representative who understands and is responsive to their needs. Elected officials in our General Assembly should be typical of a particular group of people who live in the same area (such as a city, town or neighborhood). Unfortunately, the General Assembly has decided, instead, that their own interests are more important than ensuring that communities have a voice in Dover.
To illustrate, all the northern New Castle County proposed Senate districts have an incumbent that lives on or near the edge of their district, and their district, as a result, has a boundary line that divides communities of interest. Specifically, based on information collected from the registered voters list, northern New Castle County has eight incumbent senators who represent 11 communities in which they do not live: Claymont, Arden, Greenville, Hockessin, Newark, Pike Creek, Bear, Glasgow, New Castle, Wilmington Manor and Elsmere. Similarly, in Kent County, no incumbent senator lives within the boundaries of Dover or Cheswold — communities split by the redistricting proposals — nor in Camden, Wyoming, Rising Sun-Lebanon, Highland Acres, Kent Acres or Woodside East, among others. None of these communities has a hometown state senator. None can say, “I live here.” To quote one of my favorite movies, “Mean Girls”: “She doesn’t even go here!”
At a public hearing Oct. 19, an attorney for the Senate majority explained the criteria used by the Senate to draw the proposed maps. Five of the criteria he listed are required by federal or state law: preservation of majority-minority districts; contiguity; near-equal population; bound by major roads, streams or other natural boundaries; and, perhaps most importantly, “not created so as to unduly favor any person or political party.” This final piece is significant because this is the way Delaware has chosen to guide the process — indeed, this is not a federal requirement. The attorney cited inapplicable federal law to justify the consideration of incumbents, which, to be clear, also permits partisan gerrymandering. He then emphatically explained that the proposed districts “were not drawn for the purpose of protecting incumbents or avoiding contests between incumbents.” Nonetheless, the draft maps do just that: No incumbent senator lives beyond the boundaries of a proposed district such that they live within the same district as any other incumbent. At what cost? Divided communities of interest.
The other criteria used were compactness, maintaining communities of interest and “preserving the cores of prior districts.” While the Senate proposals get credit for having more compact districts than the House proposals do, the use of historical district cores is senseless and unnecessary. Communities of interest as they exist today are well-known and identifiable. Allowing a historical boundary that divides communities to persist when we’re given the opportunity to empower a community and give it representation in the state legislature is simply anti-democratic.
Many folks respond to redistricting by talking about how much they like their incumbent, which is wonderful! But why center incumbents in a process that is not about them? Elections are where voters express their pleasure (or displeasure) with incumbents. Redistricting is where communities are identified and given a voice in the state legislature.
Delawareans have been given only a little over a week to evaluate how the proposed maps impact their communities. The process is being rushed through for the same reasons that the maps are being drawn: to center the needs of politicians, not voters (i.e., giving time for politicians to identify the district where they want to run and kick off their campaigns). To their credit, folks in Sussex County, particularly residents of Slaughter Beach and the LGBTQ+ community in Rehoboth Beach, have organized quickly — but not everyone in the state has been made aware and given a fair shot at providing their own input. The strength of our democracy, however, depends on just that.
The General Assembly is collecting our thoughts through 9 a.m. Oct. 25. We should make sure they know we’re watching. Review the draft maps at https://legis.delaware.gov/redistricting and provide feedback at legis.delaware.gov/redistricting/redistrictingcomments
Dwayne J. Bensing is part of the legal staff for the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware.