DOVER — With a pledge of openness and transparency, two leaders of the state's Democratic Party — Sen. Dave Sokola of Newark and House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf of Rehoboth Beach — hosted the year's first public hearing on redistricting Tuesday.
The redistricting process is the constitutionally mandated redrawing of legislative areas stemming from the 2020 U.S. census.
“Your participation in Delaware’s process is absolutely crucial for ensuring we are able to consider the best maps possible when the General Assembly convenes in a month or so to vote on new district lines,” said Sen. Sokola. “From Claymont to Delmar, nobody knows our communities (better) than the people who call them home. Tonight, we look forward to hearing your thoughts and suggestions for how we can make sure Delawareans are represented in Dover over the next decade.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, lawmakers offered an overview of the redistricting process and how districts are drawn. They also solicited comment from residents.
“We’ve already started to receive some maps,” said Rep. Schwartzkopf, who referred to an email he received Monday from the League of Women Voters of Delaware “with 36 maps on it.”
“I have glanced through them, and I think there is going to be a lot of the areas there that they are concerned about that we can accomplish. That’s what we need to see,” he said. “We need to hear what everybody is thinking and know what their concerns are.”
Legislative leaders and those directly involved in the process are under the watchful eye of Common Cause Delaware, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy.
“It is exciting to be here tonight at the first of the redistricting hearings for 2021,” said Common Cause Delaware Director Claire Snyder-Hall, among those to speak at the hearing conducted via Zoom. “The redistricting work you are doing in the General Assembly is so important because the way district lines are drawn will directly affect every Delawarean for the next 10 years.”
Common Cause has asked that the public be allowed to provide input on any proposed maps and that state residents be allowed to submit maps for consideration.
“When district maps keep communities intact, it allows them to have a dedicated voice in Dover, someone who will articulate community needs. But when communities are carved into parts and spread across multiple districts, voters’ voices on the issues of the day are weakened,” Ms. Snyder-Hall said. “That is why we are so gratified that the General Assembly has pledged to use the preservation of communities of interest as one of its criteria for redistricting.
“We are also proud that Delaware leads the country, along with 15 other states, in prohibiting legislators from rigging the maps to maximize the chances that incumbents will get reelected,” she continued. “In a democracy, we, the people, choose our elected representatives, not the other way around. Thankfully, our state law is designed to ensure our maps are drawn to serve voters’ interests, not partisan or incumbent interests.”
About a dozen people offered commentary Tuesday, limited to two minutes. A focus for the evening was “communities of interest.”
“We live at the shore. The shore communities are experiencing a rapid influx of folks,” said Martin Lampner. “As a community of interest, we feel it’s important that new districts recognize this area. That is not to say the previous existing ones do not, but there is some concern. There are also issues because large parts of the area are unincorporated and not in the towns. Some of the current districts that affect us do not necessarily keep communities intact.”
Ralph Begleiter added, “I would just like to urge the redistricting process to take into count tremendous growth in coastal Delaware, creating a wider-than-ever gap between the interests of Sussex County areas west of Route 113 versus those east of 113. It’s time for the state legislature to recognize those differences and organize representation so elected officials actually represent the interests of constituents of coastal Delaware distinctly from those in western Sussex.”
Keith Steck, vice president of the Delaware Coalition for Open Government, a statewide nonpartisan nonprofit, said, “Real, open participation in this process is the sign of a healthy democracy. Allowing for honest public input, rather than just looking for window dressing, is a critical element of confidence in the redistricting process.”
Dwayne Bensing offered a series of questions, which he planned to submit to the redistricting website, as well.
“While tonight’s public hearing has provided some information, we hope that at future public hearings — yet to be announced but before the General Assembly votes to approve the final maps — that the following important questions are answered,” he said.
Among his questions: How are communities of interest being identified and have any community groups been consulted to determine the boundaries of those communities?
Hearing attendee Robert Overmiller had an eye on central Delaware. “Kent County’s numbers did not adjust too much, but I do know, by looking at the numbers and the locations, that some of the districts in Kent County are going to be stretched and moved, so that we can accommodate the growth,” he said.
Over the past 10 years, Delaware’s population grew by about 92,000 people. Sussex County led the way with an increase of about 40,000.
Considering those numbers, participant Joe Conaway said, “The only question I had is: Have we determined yet how many seats will come to Sussex County?”
Farmer Tracie Johnson of Smyrna said she is pleased with the collaborative redistricting process.
“Redistricting the way you guys are doing it is going to be wonderful to get our voices heard,” she said. “I hope that you take into consideration the underpopulated areas of the Middletown-Smyrna-Odessa area and Townsend, … so we can have our voices heard.”
Linda Barnett of the League of Women Voters added, “I want to start off by stating how fortunate we feel to be living in Delaware. Our state has not experienced the hateful measures that have been taking place in other states around the country, trying to block accessibility to voting, trying to stifle open and free elections. We’re seeing this frightening type of behavior in too many places, but not here. We must not take it for granted.
“So thank you, members of our General Assembly, for keeping Delaware as a bastion of democracy. We anticipate that redistricting will follow the same pattern,” she said. “We expect that there will be fair, nonpartisan redistricting. When fair redistricting is done, then all candidates running in these various districts will have a chance to present their views to communities of interest within their districts, and after the election, our citizens can interact with their senator and representative and expect their views to be given due consideration.”
Jakim Muhammad and Michael Smith suggested that state leaders strongly consider the maps provided by the League of Women Voters.
“I think their maps and suggestions would be really well-taken in the redistricting process,” Mr. Smith said.
This year, redistricting will include a residential change for incarcerated Delawareans.
“This is the first census in which Delaware will count prisoners at the census block of the last address recorded before their incarceration, rather than at the prison,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said. Prisoners from other states will not be counted.
House and Senate caucuses from the Democratic and Republican parties will work on the maps, and leaders will introduce the final drawings as legislation. There will be one bill for all 62 legislative districts — 41 for the House of Representatives and 21 for the Senate — detailing the boundaries of each district. By law, there can be a 5% deviation from the “ideal” or average population of a House or Senate district.
The General Assembly will convene in a special session this fall to consider the final redistricting bill, hopefully in late October or very early November, Rep. Schwartzkopf said.
“Because the 2020 census data was severely delayed being sent to the states, we are starting this process five months later than we normally would,” he said. “There is a constitutional charge that a candidate has to live in the district for a year prior to be eligible to run for that district. (Therefore,) we are trying our darndest to make sure that we get this thing done by or before Nov. 8.”
Once approved by the House and Senate, the redistricting bill will go to Gov. John Carney for his signature.