Every 10 years after the census results become available, the state election districts in Delaware are revised by the General Assembly using statutory criteria that are supposed to avoid manipulation of the redistricting process for partisan purposes. Thus, “each [election] district shall, insofar as is possible: (1) Be formed of contiguous territory; (2) Be nearly equal in population;(3) Be bounded by major roads, streams or other natural boundaries; and (4) Not be created so as to unduly favor any person or political party.” The current statutory text runs about one-and-a-half pages.
The foregoing election district criteria seem reasonable, but given the involvement of the General Assembly one would suspect that the drawing of district lines has not been completely divorced from political considerations. Indeed, according to the House e-newsletter, 4/21/17, “[the] process has sometimes included maneuvers to eliminate potential candidates from specific districts, or moving two rival party incumbents into the same district.”
In April, the Delaware Senate considered a bill (SB 27) co-sponsored by Senators Bryan Townsend (D –Newark/Bear) and Brian Pettyjohn (R-Georgetown), which would provide for the creation of an Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) to handle the redistricting process. Lawmakers say they want to take politics out of redistricting process, Matthew Albright, The News Journal, 4/10/17.
Here’s a summary of the proposed arrangement: Delawareans could apply to be on the IRC– two designated state judges would pick a pool of 24 candidates (8 Democrats, 8 Republicans, 8 independents), of whom 8 should be current or retired lawyers or judges and 16 should be laypersons – legislative leaders in both chambers could peremptorily eliminate one candidate each (total of four possible strikes) – the secretary of state would draw names from the pool on a random basis until 9 members (3 with legal credentials, 6 laypersons) had been selected. Once formed, the IRC would draw the district lines, based on the same criteria that the General Assembly currently uses, with public hearings around the states and court challenges if applicable, and then disband.
The Senate approved SB 27 by a 12-7 vote. It was sent to the House and referred to the House Administrative Committee. Nothing further was heard of the bill before the General Assembly adjourned at the end of June, although it may still be taken up by the House in 2018.
An on-line post by BlueDelaware suggests a possible reason for inaction, namely House Speaker Peter Schwartzkopf [D-Rehoboth] “enjoys having the tool of redistricting at his disposal.” Similar legislation was introduced in the two previous legislative sessions; it passed the Senate in 2013, only to die in the House, and didn’t get a vote in the last session.
To me, SB 27 seems like an overly complicated response to an insoluble problem. Note that the legislative text would be expanded by a factor of five, thereby increasing the risk of conflicting interpretations or procedural hang-ups. For example, what would happen if only two lawyers/judges volunteered to serve on the IRC in 2021 versus the indicated goal of eight or more?
Taxpayers would be saddled with the costs of the IRC, including paying each of the nine commissioners $150 per day plus expenses, providing staff support, etc.
And with all the players involved in the selection and functioning of the IRC, who would be to blame if politics didn’t disappear from the equation after all? In general, there seems to be more and more litigation in this area, which won’t necessarily produce constructive results. Supreme Court forced to confront the “unsavory” politics of district lines, Richard Wolf, USA Today, 5/25/17.
A case headed its way from Wisconsin, along with others from Maryland and North Carolina, will present the court with a fundamental question about political power: How far can lawmakers go in choosing their voters, rather than the other way around? Should the court set a standard — something it has declined to do for decades — it could jeopardize about one-third of the maps drawn for Congress and state legislatures. That could lead to new district lines before or after the 2020 Census, which in turn could affect election results and legislative agendas.
There must be some more pressing problems the General Assembly could be working on, such as reducing the number of school districts in Delaware from 19 to a much smaller number, restructuring the state’s healthcare programs so they will be affordable over the long haul, and rethinking regulatory policies that are impeding economic growth and job creation.