There is the farm sickle, the dumb bell, the Loch Ness monster and a town divided four ways. No, this is not a pre-school lesson in shapes and tools. It's the way some of Delaware's legislative districts are drawn up thanks to that age old politcal phenomenon known as gerrymandering.
There is the farm sickle, the dumb bell, the Loch Ness monster and a town divided four ways.
No, this is not a pre-school lesson in shapes and tools. It's the way some of Delaware's legislative districts are drawn up thanks to that age old politcal phenomenon known as gerrymandering, Civic League for New Castle County Director Frank Sims said.
“They’re not fair if the people who designed the lines based on the Census draw them in secret and are influenced by party politics,” Sims said. “The result of that is the politicians elect us. We do not elect the politicians,” he added, echoing a sentiment he has heard as part of his research on the matter.
Gerrymandered districts like these and more are why the Civic League for New Castle County and the League of Women’s Voters are petitioning the Legislature for passage of Senate Bill 20, which would create an independent commission to oversee the next round of redistricting.
The political phenomenon is most prevalent in northern New Castle County, where towns are often divided while lower Delaware districts remain relatively contiguous.
The blue-collar town of Claymont is carved up into four different state representative districts. Each of the four districts stretches out into more affluent west Brandywine Hundred, including one shaped like a sickle (the 10th District).
Farther south in Bear, there is the so-called “dumb bell” 5th District occupied by State Rep. Melanie George (D-Bear). Two circular areas joined by a thin line comprise this district.
On the Senate side, Republican Liane Sorenson easily has the most odd shaped district, a Loch Ness monster-shaped district that connects her hometown of Yorklyn, east of Hockessin, to the city of Newark to comprise the 6th District. The head of the beast lies in Yorklyn while the stout body rests in Newark.
Redistricting, also known as reapportionment, occurs after the U.S. Census is completed every 10 years to ensure each legislator represents roughly the same number of constituents. The Census Bureau conducted its mass 2010 mailing and is now sending out field workers to knock on doors, positioning the Delaware General Assembly to redraw its boundaries in 2011.
SB 20 would allow the state to avoid a repeat of what happened eight years ago, Sims said. He successfully sued the Legislature for dragging its heels on reapportionment the last time it occurred in 2002 – a year later than was expected.
As a result of Sims’ lawsuit against the General Assembly and former House Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith (R-Clair Manor), a three-judge panel in Dover told the Legislature to finish the process in two weeks. They finished the project behind closed doors, and then displayed the drawings in Legislative Hall.
But Sims was not happy with the final result.
Sims is fighting again to ensure that districts are redrawn so that they have a center with equidistant borders – ideally square shaped. This new fight is about the Equal Rights Amendment and the Voting Rights Act in terms of elections, he said.
Geography is the only way to keep things fair, said Sims, who co-founded Delaware’s Independent Party.
Claymont resident Carl Colantuono said it is time to stop gerrymandering, which protects those in office – be they Democrats or Republicans.
“The Democrats have their own agenda. The Republicans have their own agenda and those in elected office have their own agendas,” Colantuono said. "Claymont needs to realize nobody’s looking after its interest."
Gerrymandering has cost Claymont dearly, he said, pointing out that none of the Claymont representatives actually live in his town.
SB 20’s primary sponsor, State Sen. Patricia Blevins (D-Elsmere), acknowledges that an independent commission would not make the process entirely apolitical. After all, the Senate and House leadership will pick the commission’s members.
Blevins sees a rough parallel between her pending legislation and the recently enacted legislation to finally subject the state Legislature to the Freedom of Information Act. And if the city of Wilmington and New Castle County councils both have independent commissions overseeing reapportionment, why can't the state? she said.
“It lets the sunshine in,” Blevins said. “That’s not to say it’s not a political process. The Legislature has to approve it. But the process will be one step removed from the Legislature.”
Smith, the Republican former majority leader, led the 2002 redistricting effort for the House of Representatives. Redistricting is indeed an opportunity for political parties to maneuver and strengthen themselves, he said.
“I’m a Republican, probably more so a conservative,” he said. “I would like to see all seats held by those who believe in limited govern, fiscal discipline, personal freedom.”
Smith said he decided to take on popular 20-year Democrat veteran David Brady, having the district lines drawn to include both incumbents in the 7th District. As Smith puts it, it was the more difficult thing to do, as opposed to standing pat in his district. He defeated Brady by 422 votes.
During that reapportionment, Smith made the sales pitch that dividing Claymont four ways would give the town four voices in the Legislature. Today, Smith maintains that quadrupling Claymont’s representation has benefited the town and its ongoing “renaissance."
“Where your legislator lives does not matter as much as whether an area has its political hooks in a guy,” Smith said
Colantuono never bought it.
"That was nothing more than a sales pitch," he said. And, as a result of being drawn and quartered, none of the representatives really need Claymont.
There is evidence that bipartisan or nonpartisan redistricting can create more competitive legislative districts, said Dr. Michael Coulter, a professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pa. There are 11 states that do so, said Coulter, who teaches, “Parties, Elections and Interest Groups,” among other courses.
The best-known case of this type of reapportionment is Iowa, wherein a state appointed commission drew districts that are as compact and contiguous as possible, Coulter said.
“There appears to be some indication - not overwhelming - that Iowa's districts attract stronger challengers and thus have more competitive races than in states where a partisan majority draws the districts,” he said. “I don't believe that nonpartisan redistricting would radically change the electoral environment.”
However, in Pennsylvania - where the Constitution requires a bipartisan commission for drawing state legislative boundaries - this has not prevented “districts that look like jigsaw puzzles,” Coulter said.
“I suspect that in Delaware, where the population of districts is very small (22,000 for House, and 43,000 for Senate) that a redistricting commission might increase the number of competitive districts,” he said. “But there would still be districts that would strongly favor one of the two parties because … partisans are not evenly distributed in a state.”
In the end, reapportionment is a difficult process, Blevins said. So anyone expecting to see neat, box shaped districts is apt to be disappointed.
“It’s never going to be a nice, neat tied up in a bow district because of the way the population changes,” she said. “The districts become stretched to accommodate that.”
Smith predicted the bill would go nowhere. So far, he's been right.
SB 20 was introduced and assigned to Senate Finance Committee on Jan. 28, 2009, where it remains.
"If you look at states that have commissions you still have deficits, corruption, stupid legislation and good legislation," Smith said. "California has a commission and given their financial position, I’m not sure I’d want to follow their lead. But I understand where Frank Sims is coming from. It’s certainly a legitimate point of view."