Legislation seeks to prevent political meddling in drawing districts for the General Assembly

A plan to change how the state sets the borders for legislative districts has attracted bipartisan support in the upper chamber of the General Assembly.

Senate Bill 27 seeks to overhaul General Assembly redistricting by taking it out of the hands of the legislature, sponsor Sen. Bryan Townsend said.

Instead, an independent commission would redraw voting maps without reference to politics. The Democrat of Newark said the idea is to create an unbiased and transparent method of setting boundaries. The legislation proposes a nine-member nonpartisan commission.

“We’ve seen gerrymandering across the country and it’s becoming a huge issue on both sides of the aisle,” Townsend said. “Courts around the country are starting to overrule legislatively drawn districts.” In many states, congressional districts are gerrymandered by the party in power, but the bill would not apply to Delaware’s single district; its single House of Representatives member is elected at large.

The term ‘gerrymander’ dates to 1812. Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry’s redistricting plan gave lopsided representation to the state’s dominant – and his – political party. A cartoonist at the time crafted the districts into an imaginary lizard-like animal, the “Gerry-mander,” to illustrate the disparity.

The term has been used derisively for more than 200 years to describe political power grabs.

After every U.S. census, state and federal district boundaries are changed to reflect population shifts and to, ideally, preserve the one-man-one-vote principle while keeping the population of each district about equal.

In March, a Texas court ruled three congressional districts changed in 2011 discriminated against minorities. In a 3-1 decision, the court said the Republican-led state legislature intentionally set boundaries to secure GOP-friendly territory in two districts and split the third, Democratic-leaning district to favor Republicans. It’s expected the case will be heard by the Texas Supreme Court.

In North Carolina, a federal court invalidated maps drawn by the legislature for the city of Greensboro. Another set of judges ordered the legislature to change certain congressional districts because they were racially motivated.

Delaware has yet to see a similar problem, but legislators should not just sit back and wait, Townsend said.

“Delaware [General Assembly] districts do not look anything near as manipulated as congressional districts in many other states around the country,” he said. “I think it’s time for this legislation because we have an opportunity to become a national leader on how to redraw representative districts.”

As fair as possible

Townsend introduced SB 27 March 31 as part of a larger government reform package. The bill quickly picked up support from Republican Sens. Anthony Delcollo, R-Elsmere, and Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, who signed on as sponsors.

“Ever since redistricting was created, it’s been controlled by the party in power and by the people who would benefit from the redistricting,” Pettyjohn said. This helps those in power stay in power, making it difficult for those in the minority to get elected, he said.

“I think we’ll be able to eliminate part of that,” Pettyjohn said.

The nonpartisan commission would use census data to set new boundaries. The census is taken every 10 years and it would start after the 2020 count. The panel would have three retired judges or attorneys and six other citizens; three would be Democrats, three Republicans and the rest would have no party affiliation.

Anyone wishing to be on the commission could submit an application. A bipartisan judicial panel would approve a list of 24 candidates. The nine members would be selected by lottery.

Pettyjohn admits that’s complicated.

“But this would take it out of the hands of elected officials who would benefit from redrawing arbitrary lines and put it with an independent commission charged with making those lines as fair as possible,” he said.

Townsend estimates SB 27’s fiscal impact would be just shy of $340,000 over a decade,

“You’re basically looking at $34,000 per year for independently drawn districts,” Townsend said. “That’s an absolute steal for good government.”

The money would pay commission members, staff and attorneys and provide for electronic equipment and office supplies.

Sen. Colin Bonini does not agree with the idea.

Bonini, who voted against the bill, said it was tried in California.

“It was a disaster,” Bonini said. “It created this ‘unbiased and nonpartisan’ committee full of extremists who gerrymandered things worse than any legislative body would have done.”

Bonini also objects to taking redistricting away from legislators who are answerable to voters. The commission would take away that accountability, he said.

“The whole thing is a bit of a copout,” Bonini said.

Next stop: the House

SB 27 passed the Senate 12-7 on April 5, with one abstention and one absent. Delcollo and Pettyjohn were the only Republicans voting for the bill.

The measure now faces a House vote. Townsend’s fellow Democrats enjoy a 25-16 advantage over Republicans but its fate is not certain.

The bill needs one amendment, to add geographical balance to commission membership; that was pointed out by Rep. Jeff Spiegelman, R-Clayton, the bill’s sole House Republican co-sponsor.

“It will make sure New Castle, Kent and Sussex counties are all represented on the commission,” Townsend said.

Townsend will be working with Rep. Kim Williams, D-Stanton, to garner support among Democrats, while Pettyjohn tries to line up Republican votes.

“I think it will have a tougher time passing in the House than in the Senate,” Pettyjohn said. “But I plan on talking to some of the members I’m close to and voicing my support for it and why.

“Hopefully we will get enough to vote yes.”