Claire Snyder-Hall is the executive director of Common Cause Delaware.
When we go to polls to cast our ballots, we expect our votes to count — and that starts with fair voting districts. Redistricting determines what voting district we’re in, what is on our ballot and the future of our neighborhoods.
On Friday, Common Cause and a coalition of voting rights groups released a report grading the 2020-21 redistricting cycle in all 50 states. The report concludes that a more inclusive process that operates independently from legislatures and political parties leads to better maps — ones that empower communities rather than shoring up incumbent protection or majority party control.
Having free and fair elections — where we, the people, choose our leaders — is not a partisan issue. None of us — Republican, Democrat or independent — wants elected leaders to be able to choose their voters and set the terms of the election. That’s why the report points to independent redistricting commissions that put power in the hands of the people.
Delaware earned a grade of C-, and as a member of the Fair Maps Delaware Coalition, I would have to agree with that assessment. Why did we get that score and how can we improve?
First of all, the Delaware process, unfortunately, gives partisan actors the power to determine electoral maps. Legislators draw maps for themselves, and while the governor does have veto power, it can be overridden by a three-fifths majority. And, of course, the governor is also a partisan political actor.
That said, the General Assembly does not have completely free rein to do whatever it wants. Redistricting must be done in accordance with the Voting Rights Act and with our state constitution, which prohibits legislators from drawing maps that “unduly favor any person or political party.”
Sadly, however, in 2021, legislators ignored that constitutional guardrail and blatantly used the redistricting process to favor incumbents. They began with currently existing maps and then tweaked the lines, so sitting legislators had the districts they wanted, instead of starting with fresh maps and drawing them in a way that made sense for communities, many of which have grown and changed since the 2011 redistricting cycle.
The good news is that, for the first time, because of extensive advocacy by the Fair Maps Delaware Coalition, the General Assembly allowed maps created for communities of interest to be submitted for consideration. In previous years, legislators offered no opportunities for public map submissions.
They also convened public hearings for the first time — a strong sign of progress. The actual process, however, was grossly inadequate. Public hearings were limited, and community members were not given sufficient time to evaluate proposed maps or have alternatives considered in public debate. As a result, there were few people, outside of the Fair Maps Coalition, who participated in the process.
Though the General Assembly created a website for redistricting communications, public hearings were announced with short notice, and the maps proposed by community members were not publicized. Legislature-proposed maps were difficult to read, and the coalition had to spend massive amounts of time reviewing the various maps to be able to provide thoughtful testimony during the remaining public hearings. In addition, public comments were limited to two minutes, and advocates expressed frustration that it did not feel like the legislative body was interested in hearing public voices.
So, what is to be learned from the redistricting process of 2021?
Based on its review of all 50 states, the report concludes that independent citizen redistricting commissions are the best way to integrate public feedback into maps. In contrast, commissions with elected officials or that give elected officials power to appoint commissioners often lead to gerrymandered maps. When elected officials draw maps, public input is not often prioritized or included in how district lines are drawn.
Consequently, Delaware needs an independent redistricting commission in time for redistricting in 2031. Back in 2017, in the wake of the secretive and problematic process of 2011, Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, introduced a bill that would have established an IRC, but it went nowhere. Hopefully, this time will be different.
We need a commission in the First State that has the authority and the power to draw and adopt final maps without legislative approval. It should be large enough to include a wide range of members, who are as neutral and nonpartisan as possible. And an engaged public must be a key part of the process, as well.
If we get to work now, perhaps we can raise our grade to A in 2031 — and shift power where it belongs: in the hands of the people.
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